HEADHUNTERS is a Nail Biting, Nordic Noir

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Headhunters is that type of movie. It’s the kind of film Alfred Hitchcock would be making today if he were alive and Norwegian.

Mother:  Guess what?

Grandson:  What?

Mother:  Kyle’s here.

Grandson:  Mom, can’t you tell him I was going to watch a movie?

Mother:  You’re going to watch a movie? That’s why he’s here.

Grandson:  He’ll recommend something weird. I hate that.

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Mother:  Maybe he won’t.

Kyle: Heyyyy!! How’s it going? Heh? You want me to tell you about an awesome movie from Norway?  

Mother:  I think I’ll leave you two pals alone.

Kyle:  I brought you a special movie recommendation.

Grandson:  What is it??

Kyle:  It’s a film available on Netflix right now.

Grandson: A foreign film?

Kyle:  That’s right. It was made in another country, and when I was your age I only wanted to watch movies made in Hollywood too. But this is a special movie. It was a movie recommended to me, and when my friends wanted to see something good it’s a movie I’d recommend to them. And today, I’m gonna recommend it to you.

Grandson:  Does it got any action in it?

Kyle:  Are you kidding? Heists, hacking, gunplay, betrayals, nudity, knife fights, chases, escapes, True Love, mistaken identity and Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones ….

Grandson:  Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.

Kyle:  Oh. Well, thank you very much. Very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming. All right .., “Hodejegerne” aka “Headhunters”, 2011, directed by Morten Tyldum; the academy award nominated director of The Imitation Game(2014). Fade in . . .

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These days there is an overwhelming number of choices when it come to movies and only so much time to watch them. All too often I hear the plea from the overwhelmed casual moviegoer, “I don’t know what to watch!” Especially towards the end of the Summer movie season (or Winter movie season for our friends south of the equator). As we head into the dog days of September, that space between the doldrums of Fall — but before the Oscar battle royale of Winter (Summer in Sydney) — there is a lull at the cinema, and it’s the perfect time to catch up on some sleeper hits at home. But what to watch? If you are numb to the onslaught of the loud, bloated, explosive, eye-bleeding, sensory overloading, popcorn-scarfing fests of Summer but still want to see something exciting then I have got a movie recommendation for you!

Of course, I first try to steer people in the direction of the amazing Mad Max: Fury Road and the excellent Ex Machina (both now available on Blu-Ray) but all too often they scoff at that endorsement. They shake their heads and say that’s not what they want. “I’ve already seen those,” they’ll say. Like Jack Skellington on November 1rst, they want something new. Could there be a compromise between an effects heavy extravaganza or a taut indie drama? Something fresh and surprisingly but not too intellectual or entirely devoid of thought?

That is when I dig deep to find an ace in the hole. A film that will entertain as well as impress!

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Grandson: What is this? Are you trying to trick me? A Foreign film? Does this movie have subtitles? Does it take place in Europe?

Kyle: Wait, just wait.

Grandson: Well, when is your pitch gonna get good?

Kyle: Keep your shirt on.

Headhunters is my film de jour. It’s such a great movie it’s become one of my top recommendations for those hard to please. I believe anyone who enjoys a good thriller should see it because it is expertly crafted work of cinema while still maintaining universal appeal. I wouldn’t even necessarily call it a foreign film. It’s just a movie that happens to be from another country with subtitles you’ll need to read in order to understand what the characters are saying.

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Now, with all that out of the way here comes the hard sell. See, I’m a big proponent of “the less you know about a movie the more you’ll enjoy said movie” but these days that’s not always a popular notion. Robert Zemeckis, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of the motion capture classics The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol once said “We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly everything that they are going to see before they go see the movie. It’s just one of those things.”

I’m not sure if the culture that invented the phrase “SPOILER ALERT” would agree. And while Bobby Z did indeed gave away the entire plot of Castaway in the trailer (beat for beat) he curiously stayed vague with the details for the trailer of What Lies Beneath; a Hitchcockian thriller that he filmed in the middle of making Castaway. So, if the master of spoilers thought trailers should keep some secrets there must be some merit to walking in blind to certain types of movies.

Headhunters is that type of movie. It’s the kind of film Alfred Hitchcock would be making today if he were alive and Norwegian. I had no idea what it was about, only that it wasn’t a horror film, and that made it all the more enjoyable. I invite you to continue reading to wet your appitite but don’t explore beyond this review. Just go directly to Netflix or wherever you can get a copy and enjoy the ride. Headhuntersdoes have a fantastic trailer and it does an excellentJOB of selling the film by giving away all the best parts. Just trust me. You’ll like this movie a lot more if you’re not anticipating its jaw-dropping moments.

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And now for what could be construed as some minor spoilers.

Grandson: I don’t believe this.

  • Ønce upon a time, a rich Oslo (that’s the capital of Norway) corporate headhunter, who supports his lavish lifestyle by moonlighting as an art thief, realizes he needs to make a change. Up to his blue eyes in debt (trying to appease his trophy wife by overcompensating for his insecurities) the headhunter decides to go after “one last big score”. He ends up targeting a rare painting of the very last person he should: Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones), a charismatic alpha male with a dangerous past. And thus begins a series of deadly and escalating circumstances that push the headhunter to the limit of his resolve in a fight to stay alive and set the wrong things right.

Grandson: Deadly escalating circumstances are good!

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I think one of my favorite aspects of Headhunters is the use of its main character, Roger Brown. I like a good arc for a protagonist and one of my favorites kinds is when we start with an unlikable ass and watch as he slowly grows into a guy we want to root for. Think Michael Douglas in The Game or Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. In the beginning, Roger is a selfish, arrogant, and smug jerk who brings all of his troubles upon himself, but through a painful ordeal, we come to care about him. Unsympathetic characters can be tricky and in the hands of a weaker filmmaker you’ll lose your audience if they don’t care about your lead, but director Morten Tyldum wisely knows how to warm us up to Roger with subtle, performance-based characterization.

Tyldum narrows the camera’s perspective so we rarely cut away from Roger and then keeps us close to his point of view. Tyldum even starts the film off with an inner monolog narration so we understand what drives him. And then Tyldum goes a step further by taking the time to linger on actor Aksel Hennie’s terrific performance, allowing the frame to remain on looks of regret or longing. It’s these brief moments that make you reassess your feelings for the materialistic schmuck and gradually, after Roger’s life is turned upside down, you find yourself becoming invested in the poor guy’s struggle.

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And what an ordeal he goes through. When trying to think of films I would compare to Headhunters I thought about the technological surveillance of Enemy of the State, the desperate chase of The Fugitive, the paranoia of The Game and the conspiracy of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Headhunters has elements of all of these films, particularly the theme of a “wronged man” who is hunted and must clear his name, but is slightly more complicated with its various reversals. It’s plot is intricate but never convoluted.

However, unlike those other films Headhunters subverts “the wronged man” trope. For starters, Roger Brown isn’t exactly innocent nor does he have the physicality of the leading men of those other films. And while the heroes of those films find themselves in desperate situations, Roger he has a significantly more difficult crisis than Will Smith, Harrison Ford or Cary Grant put together. Still, that only contributes to making him a more sympathetic character since he’s more or less an everyman with relatable motivations.

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When I really stop to think about it, Roger has more in common with John McClane of Die Hard. The guy metaphorically runs barefoot across glass for a majority of the film’s running time, atoning for being a better husband to his wife. In fact, one intense scene in Headhunters makes McClane’s daring jump off the roof seem quaint by comparison. Roger Brown really does die-hard and by a combination of ingenuity, luck and sheer force of will not only turns the tables and survives but also becomes a better person for his trouble.

Headhunters appeal comes from its cycle of inexplicable setups, unpredictable turns and epiphanic payoffs. It’s a thriller that embraces the tenet of Chekov’s Gunby never introducing an inconsequential character, object or line of dialogue that won’t pay off later in a big way; whether that be a carton of milk, the stroke of a hand or the introduction of a couple of heavy set twin police officers. The script is tight and perfectly paced, grabbing your attention from the start, introducing the characters, setting the takes and then ratcheting up the tension more and more as the screws begin to turn. Occasionally the film asks you to suspend your disbelief—one of the most memorable set pieces was even proved implausible by theMythbusters — but you’ll be too busy holding your breath, gasping from unexpected twists, that you won’t have time to question plausibility of it all. Not until after the crowd-pleasing finale. I’d go so far as to qualify Headhunters as one of the most exciting, clever, and darkly comic contemporary thrillers I’ve ever seen.

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Kyle: And that’s my recommendation. Now, I think you need to go watch it.

Grandson: Okay.

Kyle” All right. Okay. Okay. Okay. All right. So long.

Grandson: Kyle? Maybe you could come back and recommend another movie sometime.

Kyle: As you wish.

 

Rating: 4.5/5

Reelization: The highest grossing Norwegian film of all time a BAFTA award winner for best foreign language film.

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