I confess that I’m not a big fan of the heist subgenre of movies, wherein a cast of handsome, smug movie stars smooth talk and joke their way into wealth and luxury. And while I understand and respect the enthusiasm my fellow writers here at FleshEatingZipper have shown for movies like Ocean’s Eleven, I’m typically left cold by such movies. The characters in The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven never face any real consequences for their actions, and that tends to leave these movies lacking in the tension I think is necessary to sustain any sort of crime picture. I just find myself wondering how these guys can simply talk their way out of the clutches of vicious gangsters without a scratch. Thankfully, the filmmakers behind Headhunters, a Norwegian crime thriller hitting Blu-ray this week, share my assessment of the heist subgenre. Headhunters is the anti-Ocean’s Eleven.
Askel Hennie stars as Roger Brown, a wealthy art thief who uses his position as a recruiter (or headhunter) for a major Norwegian corporation to scout for potential victims. I’ve never seen Hennie in a film before, but now I want to see all of his movies; the man is an intriguing, sad-eyed actor who looks like the tubercular lovechild of Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken. If Headhunters is the anti-Ocean’s Eleven, Hennie is the anti-George Clooney.
As Roger Brown, Hennie is smooth talking, smug, and hopelessly insecure. In a nation where most of the population is tall and attractive, Brown stands at only 5’6”—a fact upon which he dwells. He overcompensates for his “inferior genetics” by marrying a tall, blonde Nordic beauty and providing her with a life of wealth and luxury.
Meanwhile, at his day job, he treats everyone with contempt. He keeps co-workers at a distance and subtly presses job applicants to reveal their secrets by preying upon their insecurities. Brown seems to have no understanding or appreciation for the art he’s taking. Instead, he relies on his would be victims to inform him if they possess anything of value. After a potential victim spills his secrets, Brown slips into the victim’s residence, lifts the prize, and leaves behind a clever forgery. By the time anyone discovers something amiss, Brown has fenced the art.
And this system seems to work, until the day he decides to rip off an ex-special forces sociopath by the name of Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). As Brown finds himself tracked by the superhuman killing machine, things get wild and bloody. Unlike the villains common to the heist subgenre, Clas can’t be bartered with, bargained with, or conned. He pursues Brown with the single mindedness of the Terminator. Throughout the course of the film, our smug protagonist is beaten, shot, and stabbed as he attempts to evade the killer. In one (unfortunately) unforgettable sequence, Brown escapes Clas by climbing into the bowels of an outhouse and submerging himself in feces in order to escape detection.
As Headhunters progresses, the proceedings grow so wildly violent that the film almost becomes a parody of itself. It’s as if director Morten Tyldum has spent the past decade fantasizing about watching the self-satisfied characters of Confidence, Criminal, and the Ocean’s movies being bludgeoned to death by an unkillable monster. If those movies showed protagonists who faced no negative consequences for their crimes, then Headhunters is about a man coming face-to-face with the consequences of his decisions in the most horrific way imaginable.
As far as I’m concerned, Headhunters is a fine companion piece to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (my favorite heist film of all time) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing in any Blu-ray collection. Headhunters takes the action and pitch black humor further than either of those movies, but it joins them as being something wildly different from what we typically see from the heist genre these days.