Once you've turned the corner, there's Norway back.
Headhunters, the first of author Jo Nesbo's novels for which he has given the permission to adapt, is part of the new wave of gritty Nordic cinema spearheded by films such as Let The Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but distinguishes itself from those peers by infusing it's dark premise with pitch-black humour.
Aksel Hennie is fantastic as Roger Brown, a corporate recruitment hotshot whose diminutive stature and far from GQ looks have filled his marriage to beautiful wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), a gallery owner, with self-doubt and insecurity. In order to fund the lavish lifestyle he fears he must maintain in order to secure Diana's loyalty, Roger moonlights as an art thief, using his day job and Diana's contacts to sniff out potential scores, while home security cohort and gun nut Ove takes care of the alarm systems from his control room.
With the bank chewing at his heels over a huge overdraft, Roger needs a major score, and when handsome Dutch special forces operative turned corporate tech advisor Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) turns up at the opening of Diana's new gallery it transpires that the new guy in town has just such an artwork in his possession. Roger's heist plans go well until upon completing the job, at which point he learns a heartbreaking revelation about his wife, followed shortly by the realisation that Clas Greve is in fact a stone cold, murderous psychopath who would really, really like his painting back and isn't afraid of getting blood on his hands in order to do so.
As outlandish a premise as it presents, Headhunters never really stops long enough to allow the audience to ponder it's often ludicrous contrivances, instead resting it's credibility on the shoulders of an outstanding performance from Hennie. As Roger, Hennie pulls a remarkable trick in bringing the viewer's empathy in line with a character who otherwise appears to have few redemptive qualities, though Nesbo's text doesn't allow that to happen without first putting Roger through a whole series of violent wash cycles.
In first person voiceover Roger opens the film by laying his insecurities bare and, as we are privvy to a scene in which he himself is unfaithful to his wife, explains that in order to win big you sometimes have to risk everything. It's a sentiment that belies Roger's deep insecurities, and, following another early scene where Diana argues with him over his lack of desire to have children, we come to understand that Roger's self-doubt is largely of his own manufacture, and far from being a gold digger Diana is ostensibly a decent, loving wife.
As the mayhem and carnage of Greve's art revenge rampage unfolds, a series of Dante-esque trials befall Roger in order that he might regain our understanding as an audience, including perhaps cinema's most stomach-churning scene involving an outhouse toilet. Somehow Hennie pulls off the feat of desperately humiliating himself to the necessary degree that all moralistic debts are paid in full to the viewer, and by the final couple of reels I was desperate for him to find a way to finally put paid to Clas' murderous spree.
Great support is in abundance here, though perhaps Coster-Waldau's presence is the weakest link and a little less charismatic than it needs to be. Nonetheless we are in no doubt as to his merits either as a handsome devil or a trained killer, and if his role is to put Roger through purgatory in a convincing manner then he can consider his payslip fully earned.
Despite the sillier plot elements that crop up regularly Headhunters is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through murder and mayhem that somehow manages to raise a chuckle by skirting close to farce without ever quite crossing the line. If you have a free 100 minutes on a Saturday night then stream it. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Clas Greve)