In the midst of a glut of sombre, politically challenging Scandinavian crime dramas, Headhunters – while ticking the ‘Norwegian’ and ‘crime novel adaptation’ boxes – proves an awkward bedfellow for the likes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s novel veers from the sublime to the ridiculous, a slightly mad cocktail of genres and themes. Gritty crime thriller? Moody relationship drama? Screwball comedy? Elements of all three appear as eponymous headhunter and high-end art thief Roger Brown (played by Aksel Hennie, who can only be described as looking like the Norwegian love child of Conan O’Brien and Steve Buscemi) attempts to solve his financial woes with one last heist, and finds himself in a series of increasingly bizarre and grisly situations. Outwardly polished and confident, once the shit hits the proverbial fan Roger’s espionage skills prove to be somewhat lacking – or so we are led to believe.
Having become accustomed to the dense, tightly knitted, slow-burn plots of both the aforementioned Swedish series and Danish TV shows such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and The Bridge, the film’s light-hearted opening is unexpected and refreshing. The clean lines and modern art of Roger’s 30 million kronor house are a world away from Lisbeth Salander’s murky Stockholm, and the narration and jazzy score nod to the conventions of the crime caper. Laying his cards out at the very beginning with a lesson in successful art thievery, Roger’s authoritative voice-over obliquely suggests he might actually be one step ahead. Its absence until the denouement means, however, that thoughts of trying to unravel the plot are largely forgotten, as his tangle with the wrong people leads him on a bizarre chase across what seems like half of Norway. Just as well, because the film turns out to be considerably cleverer than you might initially give it credit for.
The chase is peppered with spectacularly gruesome, almost laughable violence, vaguely reminiscent of the Coen brothers in its sheer improbability – one scene in particular, involving a large dog and the prongs of a forklift truck, drew chuckles from an audience who seemed to feel this was so bizarre it was okay to laugh. There are times when it feels like the film, unsure what it really wants to be, is trying a bit of everything and hoping something sticks. The problems in Roger’s relationship with his beautiful wife Diana, while yielding the occasional touching moment, are slightly textbook, and some of the most enjoyably wacky characters are only peripheral. Headhunters is redeemed, however, by its last five minutes. The resolution is neat and satisfying, stylistically and thematically circular, and makes you realise that it did know where it was going after all. Aside from its Scandinavian credentials, the film shares more DNA with screwball and black comedy than with its ‘Nordic noir’ cousins. For enjoyably bizarre entertainment, you could do far worse.