Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally successful Millennium trilogy bought gritty Scandinavian thrillers to the world’s attention, which has undoubtedly benefited Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø. Famed for his pitch-black Harry Hole crime-thriller series, Nesbø is particularly skilled in crafting the flawed good-guy character (Hole, a brilliant detective, is also a heavy smoker and an alcoholic), an art that is clearly evident in Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of Nesbø’s 2008 stand-alone novel “Headhunters.”
Robert Brown (Aksel Hennie, whose resemblance to Christopher Walken is uncanny) is a successful headhunter and part-time art thief. Afflicted by feelings of incompetence primarily stemming from his height and seemingly unworthy of his beautiful wife Diana (the lofty Synnøve Macody Lund), Brown’s criminal dalliances allow him to live a rich-playboy lifestyle that he can barely afford in order to keep her sweet.
With investigators on Brown’s case following a spate of thefts, he risks everything when the charming yet mysterious businessman with a shady military past, Clas Greve (a dashing but brutal Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), appears.
Tipped off that Greve is in possession of a valuable artwork, Brown is blinkered by the promise of one last payday and carries out the job. Things quickly spiral out of control, sparking off a very bloody and at times humorously farcical chase as Greve relentlessly pursues Brown in a twisty tale of infidelity, jealousy, conspiracy and deceit.
Scribes Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg do a fine job of translating some of Nesbø’s more fantastical sequences, with one particular scene involving a tractor and a dog laying claim to being one of the most incredible and uncomfortably amusing yet put to screen. Tyldum, too, proves more than adept at maintaining the pace and tension of the zigzaggy narrative without befuddling his audience.
It’s a perfectly perfunctory thriller that is elevated from the so-so by a fine central performance from Hennie as Brown, who — despite essentially being a pathetic, loathsome and flawed individual — manages to encourage more sympathy than the very mechanical and ruthless Greve, who will stop at nothing to get his man.
In fact, “Headhunters” proves far superior to many run-of-the-mill thrillers by boasting a bleakness that is so often found wanting; and it’s not afraid to confront its viewers by challenging them to reassess its characters mid-flight. It’s also starkly and unflinchingly violent in parts and justifiably so, as it serves to emphasize the increasing desperation of Brown and the vehement determination of Greve.
It’s certainly a slick, gloomy interpretation of Nesbø’s source material and is a timely reminder to the rest of the world that Scandinavia has brooding thrillers locked down, at least that is until the inevitable Hollywood remake is green-lit.