Wednesday, June 27, 2012

It's Hard to Get Good Help These Days

Headhunters (2011, directed by Morten Tyldum) is a precision clockwork of a thriller based around the notion that its central character is overcompensating for his shortcomings, if you know what I mean (and I think you do). He can't believe his good luck: his wife, Diana, is supermodel gorgeous, he's affluent, and he's terrified that he's going to lose it all. This is Roger Brown, would be nebbish. By day, he's a corporate headhunter. By night, he's an art thief. It's his moonlight job that pays the extravagant bills he and his wife are running up. He's up front about his motivations. In a voice-over narration at the beginning of the movie, he lays bare his insecurities. Oddly enough, it's not his night job that provides the main spring of the narrative in this film. That's just one of its surprises.

The plot finds Roger recruiting a new CEO for a telecom company. His first candidate loses an Edvard Munch print for his trouble. The second candidate, however, is trouble. This is Clas Greve, who is tall, blonde, and gorgeous, a man's man. The exact kind of man that Roger is convinced is what his wife would prefer in a partner. Meanwhile, Roger is ending his own affair with the clinging Lotte, who Roger thinks is more in his league. It's Diana who introduces the Roger and Greve at the opening of her art gallery. Greve, it seems, has a Rubens that was lost in WW II. This is a honeypot that Roger cannot resist and he contrives to steal it. In the course of stealing it, however, he discovers evidence that Greve is having an affair with Diana. He contrives to sabotage Greve's chances of the job, but Greve doesn't take kindly to Roger, and soon, Roger is being hunted. Greve, it seems, is ex-special forces with access to some exotic technologies. His pursuit of Roger is relentless, and soon, the two are engaged in a lethal game of cat and mouse...

Headhunters, like other recent Scandinavian thrillers, places a premium on the workings of its plot. When the movie comes to its close, it provides a tidy exegesis that details all of the turns that the audience may have missed. This is kind of disappointing, actually, because the movie has been filmed with a clarity and elegance that makes most of its plot points crystal clear if you've been following along. The exegesis at the end is pretty much superfluous, particularly in light of the fact that there's an absolutely perfect place to stop about five minutes earlier. The way this ties things up in a bow reminds me of the end of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was similarly unnecessary. But, really, I shouldn't grouse. The middle game of this particular chess match is a masterclass of suspense filmmaking, built on carefully conceived set pieces that tick away like particularly fine machinery.

And it's droll. I was trying to put my finger on what it is about this movie that makes it so much more fun than similar Scandinavian thrillers like the Millenium films or Insomnia, and it's the sense of humor. For instance: There's a completely outrageous scene in this movie in which Roger dispatches an attack dog that should be utterly horrifying but which becomes a continuing scene of black comedy. This comes after a scene involving an outhouse that follows a ruthless logic while simultaneously heaping shit (literally) on our hero in a way that's outrageously funny. This provides further comedy opportunities, too. I found myself laughing at a LOT of Headhunters, and I wonder if the sick comedy is something that's particular to Norway (from which this film hails). But don't be deceived by my own sick sense of humor, it's a merciless thriller, one that suggests that there are always worse things around the next plot twist.

Of course, that's the main deficiency in Headhunters. It's all plot. Oh, it's characters, too, but they serve the plot. It's not really interested in complicated moral dilemmas, even though Roger is presented with at least one thorny matter of trust. Again, it serves the plot and allows the film its too tidy resolution. This is the Nordic version of a thrill ride, though without the special effects and gargantuan budget of a Hollywood thrill ride, this one has to rely on more old-fashioned elements like good writing and interesting characters. Roger Brown, it should be noted, is a very interesting character. Aksel Hennie, who plays him, looks like a weird combination of Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe, and his neuroses suit the actor. Brown is a technocrat, and doesn't realize just how sexy being accomplished in his field is. Or, for that matter, how attractive the veneer of the bad boy art thief is. When, at the end of the movie, Diana listens to his fears and dismisses them, we hope it's a wake-up for Roger. It seems to be. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is the familiar face in the cast for American audiences, though listening to him speak Norwegian severs a little bit of that familiarity. He's the perfect actor for Greve: gorgeous, godlike, salted with ruthlessness. Even relatively accomplished men would feel a certain amount of shrivelling in their privates if measured against Greve. In some ways, this is a power fantasy, catering to the age-old high school conflict between nerds and jocks. In any event, interesting characters are fun to watch, and so it is here.

I should mention that all of the quibbles I have with Headhunters were formulated after the fact, discussing the film with friends after the show. This is a movie that brooks no argument while you're in the moment. It grabs the viewer by the nads and pulls them along for the ride. It's kind of irresistible that way.

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