When a fish bites, we swarm the fucking fishing hole these days. And it’s not even broad like “vampires” or “four female friends sexing it up.” Fairy tales and robots seem to be the hot commodities right now in Hollywood. But there’s lately been a trend for “Scandinavian Thrillers.” Mostly exploded by the crazy success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and the original Let The Right One In, that snowy penis shaped land of mystery has become smoking hot. And while not every rare export makes it to our shores, what we have been getting has been pretty bad-ass. The latest is the adaptation of Norwegian noir writer Jo Nesbo’s novel Headhunters. While the cynical side of frosted Mini-Me wants to scorn this as a means of capitalizing on Nicolaj Coster-Waldau’s success as Jamie Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” the movie watcher side of me is throwing a Robert Barratheon party. Headhunters is a stunning and throat-clenching thriller, audacious and twisty in all the right ways. It’s a rollercoaster of a film that suddenly crashes through the side of a cliff and ends up whirling through the hallucinatory landscape of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before skidding to a halt with several passengers gruesomely dead. And I mean that as a compliment. Thanks to the funemployment nature of my profession, I’ve read a shitton of murder-mysteries and seen pretty much every episode of “Law and Order” in all its various incarnations. So it’s hard to trick me, but I was fooled several times over.
We open in seemingly familiar waters. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) spends his days as a headhunter for a prestigious high-end firm, and his nights as a daring art thief. It’s the only way a short guy like him (his words, not mine) can keep up with the wealthy appetites of his gorgeous statuesque beauty of a wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund). He’s got his system down pat - print up a forgery, use his scheming partner Ove (Eivind Sander) at the security firm to break in and out undetected and fence the goods, and profits! Everything’s running smoothly, so of course it soon won’t be. At the opening of his wife’s new art gallery, he meets the stunning handsome and mysterious Clas Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau). Not only is Clas an extremely overqualified potential executive candidate but he also happens to have recently come into a rare portrait given to his recently deceased grandmother by her Nazi lover. Bowling pins have never been set up so blatantly.
And that’s where Headhunters is so deftly clever. When watching a magician wave his left hand, anyone remotely familiar with the trickery watches the right hand to see the grift. But director Morten Tyldum doesn’t use the right hand. He’s got a third hand you couldn’t possibly know about. And it’s not sleight of hand, he’s actually got magical powers. What seems like a heist film becomes a paranoid escape thriller - a super graphic version of “The Fugitive.” It’s a shell game version of Chekhov’s gun. A gun is placed on a kitchen table in the first act, loaded obviously, acknowledged, and hung in a prominent place on the mantle. Then through the rest of the insane story points - involving nanotech hair gel, outhouse feces, and a pair of overweight twin peace officers - Tyldum and the excellent script by Lars Gulmestad and Ulf Ryberg proceed to kill everyone with everything else in the kitchen. And just as we’re sitting there covered in flour in the wreckage of the kitchen, he pulls the gun and uses it. But not how you’d expect. Not a single story thread gets wasted and even when the warp and weft change, the final product is fantastic.
The entire cast is dynamic. Synnove Macody Lund has that sort of blonde goddess mystique to her, that kind of frosty ice queen. She reminded me a lot of the terrific Andrea Roth as Tommy Gavin’s wife/ex-wife/wife in “Rescue Me.” The supporting cast is bursting at the seams with the kind of quirk and mania you’d expect from a Jody Hill comedy. Any one of these characters could be on Danny McBride’s resume - and since Summit bought the American remake rights, probably will be - from the dickish farm owner, to the karate obsessed detective, to the gun-nut partner Ove. My experience with Nicolaj Coster-Waldau is limited, but this will get the man even more work that his grand turn as Jamie. It’s not just a pretty face part - it’s a restrained Patrick Bateman, and he nails it. He’s got that same shit-eating grin that he brings to Jamie, and despite his snarling dog psychology, he’s got to keep up appearances. Aksel Hennie is the true star of this film, and deservedly so. He’s like this insane combination of Owen Wilson and Robert Carlyle. He’s a smug little pug with huge eyes and stupid curly hair, a privileged little shit doling out the smarm like Denzel Washington playing those good-bad guys he does so well. He makes Prince Joffrey look a tourist at Wonka’s factory. But over the course of the film, he basically has to disintegrate and reassemble, and it’s a fucking haunting journey. There’s not a chance this film would work without his performance, and he does remarkably.
Headhunters is like watching the head of the Magic Castle do street magic for cynical hipsters. He’s just so fucking good, that no matter if you know how the tricks are being pulled off, you’re just jaw dropped. While you’re picking a card, he’s picking your pocket. Then he hands you back your wallet full of rabbits. And the rabbit turns into a cloud of birds. One of which shits the four of diamonds, which was your fucking card. Boom. You’ve been magicked, trucker hat. It’s the rising star for Aksel Hennie, who’ll next be (possibly, hopefully) seen in Die Hard 5: The Dieharderering, and it’s pudding proof of the talents of Nicolaj Coster-Waldau. And yet another excellent Scandinavian film that will be remade for American audiences. So catch the original recipe if you get the opportunity.