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'Headhunters': The Caper Flick, Raised To A Fine Art

Apr 26, 2012
Originally published on April 27, 2012 5:05 pm

At the beginning of the Norwegian thriller Headhunters, Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) will likely strike you as just about the cockiest insecure guy you've ever met.

Smirking as he pads around his pristine, glass-walled home in boxer shorts, he swirls a heart into the foam on the coffee he's taking to his gorgeous, blond and naked wife (former model Synnove Macody Lund) in their enormous open shower. Then as she moves from the streaming water to kiss him, he has to lean up, because she's half a head taller than he is.

"I'm 5-foot-6," he tells us in a voice-over. "You don't need a Ph.D. to realize that I overcompensate for my height."

He does the overcompensating by showering his wife with gifts so she won't look at other men — that sleek home he doesn't much like, expensive jewelry, an art gallery of her own to manage — none of which he can afford on his salary as a corporate recruiter.

So on the side, Roger steals art. Not from his wife's gallery, but from his own clients. Listen to the innocent-sounding lifestyle questions he asks the executives he's interviewing for corporate presidencies — what sort of painting hangs on their living room walls? Does the wife work? Who stays with the kids when they're sick? Any allergies to, say, dogs? — and you'll realize he's pinpointing how vulnerable their homes are and when they'll be empty.

As played by Hennie, Roger is as smooth and crisp as the lines of his modernist mansion, especially when he gets wind of a Rubens masterpiece belonging to a handsome counterterrorism hotshot. Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the arrogant Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones), is just the sort of guy Roger can imagine his wife leaving him for.

And for reasons that aren't immediately clear, Clas is not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. So when Roger goes for the painting, every aspect of the jigsaw-puzzle life he's assembled — job, marriage, affair, art heists — starts coming apart. One day he's sipping champagne in a white-glove restaurant, the next he's panicking in a rural outhouse literally in deep ... well, you get the idea. How this flaxen-haired corporate headhunter finds himself bald, bloodied and fleeing someone who is not-metaphorically hunting his actual head, you'll want to discover for yourself.

Though Roger spends the film almost constantly in fear of his life, director Morten Tyldum is less intent on making his story scary than on making it fascinating. The film has some fairly grisly violence, but also considerable humor and the sort of intricate, thought-through storytelling you'd expect from Hitchcock or the Coen brothers.

The film almost seems like a cinematic illustration of Chekhov's rule about guns on stage: "If you see a gun in the first act, it needs to go off in the second." In Headhunters, you see giant twin police officers and wonder, "Why so big? Why twins?"

Trust me, you'll soon find out. (Recommended)

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Scandinavia has been the setting for some startling thrillers lately, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," the Kurt Wallander detective stories. And now, Bob Mondello says you can add the new film "Headhunters" to the list.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Roger Brown will initially strike you as just about the cockiest insecure guy you've ever met, smirking as he pads around his expensive modernist home in boxer shorts, taking coffee to his gorgeous, blonde, naked wife in their enormous open shower. But as she moves from the streaming water to kiss him, he has to lean up because she's half a head taller than he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEADHUNTERS")

MONDELLO: I'm 5-foot-6, he tells us in a voice-over. You don't need a Ph.D. to realize that I overcompensate for my height.

He does the overcompensating by showering his wife with gifts, so she won't look at other men, gifts he can't begin to afford on his salary as a corporate recruiter. So on the side, Roger steals art. Listening to the innocent-sounding lifestyle questions he asks the corporate executives he's interviewing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEADHUNTERS")

MONDELLO: And you'll realize he's pinpointing when their homes will be empty.

As played by Aksel Hennie, Roger is very smooth, especially when he gets wind of a Rubens masterwork belonging to a handsome counterterrorism hotshot, Clas, played by the good-looking lug who plays Jaime in "Game of Thrones," is just the sort of guy Roger can imagine his wife leaving him for. He's also not someone you want to get on the wrong side of.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEADHUNTERS")

MONDELLO: And when Roger goes for the painting, every aspect of the jigsaw puzzle life he's assembled starts coming apart: his job, marriage, affair, art heists. And soon, this flaxen-haired corporate headhunter finds himself bald, bloodied and fleeing someone who is literally hunting his head. I'd say more, but how he gets that way, I suspect you'll want to discover for yourself.

Though Roger is almost constantly in fear for his life, director Morten Tyldum is less intent on making his story scary than on making it fascinating. The film has some fairly grisly violence, but also humor and the sort of intricate, thought-through storytelling you'd expect from Hitchcock or the Coen brothers.

You know Chekhov's rule about guns on stage, if you see a gun in the first act, it needs to go off in the second? Well, "Headhunters" is like that in almost every detail. When you see giant twin police officers in this movie and wonder, why so big, why twins? Trust me, you'll soon find out.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.