Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Headhunters (Hodejegeme)

Headhunters (2012)
Dir. Morten Tyldum
Starring Askel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

    Vern, in his infinite brilliance, likes to compare genre films to Blues songs. Blues --maybe more than any other popular musical genre-- are rigidly structured in terms of style, texture, composition, and even content. All true blues songs are fundamentally the same, and yet some blues songs are forgettable background noise and others burn through your soul like your heart was pumping gasoline. It’s up to the individual performer to take the basic form of the blues song and make it their own, make it better, make it richer. They don’t accomplish this by getting creative and surprising you, they do it by milking the absolute most power possible out of the basic structure they’re exploring and giving it a part of their own unique humanity.
            Genre movies are like this too. Case in point, the little-by-our-standards-big-by-their-standards Norwegian chase thriller HEADHUNTERS (HODEJEGEME) which opens this weekend (yes, this coming weekend. I know people.) There’s not really anything in here that you haven’t seen done before, and done this well or better. But it’s got the fundamentals down to a fine art and has enough of its own unique personality that it works like a charm.

Askel Hennie (MAX MANUS, which sounds like a truly amazing porn but is actually a historical action film about Norwegian Nazi-fighters) plays the oddly-named Norwegian Roger Brown, a smarmy corporate headhunter by day and fine-art thief by night. He’s got to hold down two big-ticket jobs because he wants to spoil his much-taller and much-hotter wife who he’s worried would never have anything to do with him were he less than obscenely wealthy. Just as he’s getting over his head in debt, in walks Claus Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, GAME OF THRONES) an aggressive Dutch ex-military, ex-special-ops tracker, ex-mercenary ex-CEO who just happens to have an original Rubens painting in his Norwegian aunt’s apartment worth millions. Roger is worried about ripping off a guy who sounds like a Steven Seagal backstory, but he needs the money so he goes for the big score. Greve, whose massive technology company specializes in GPS tracking, is having none of it. And so the chase is on.

One nice thing the film has going for it is that it takes its time carefully laying the scenario out, but once Greve comes after Roger, it suddenly lurches into high gear. Most films would waste our time by coyly escalating things, letting Greve make a bunch of thinly-veiled threatening speeches, etc. Here, Greve just grabs a hunting knife and comes after him. It’s simple and visceral and I like it. We all know the structure of this blues song, so why be coy when we can cut right to the good stuff?  And once Greve starts coming, he simply doesn’t let up. So it’s this vain, effete art thief versus a relentless, ruthless manhunter. Roger knows he’s way out of his depth, and just books it halfway across Norway on a directionless terror-soaked adrenaline tear, with Greve always hot on his tail. 

There’s a nice blending of the shockingly brutal and the drolly comedic here, which suits the film very nicely. Roger isn’t exactly the most likeable film character in the world; he seems vain, opportunistic, disinginuous, insecure. But his punishment is so outlandishly over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh and feel for him a little. It helps that he looks like an exact cross between Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken*, so he coasts on their goodwill a little. But there’s also something about the naked, childlike horror at all this in Roger’s face which tells us that he’s basically a nice guy. Sure he’s an asshole, but he definitely didn’t deserve this. He’s just an insecure little fellah, mostly harmless, who bit off way more than he could chew. We can all empathize with the fear of suddenly finding ourselves way over our heads, so you ultimately want things to turn out OK for him even though you know this is one of those arty European thrillers which will probably have him come to an ironically bad end. Like he survives everything only to be hit by a truck outside his house or something. You know the kinda shit they like to pull. Anyway, Hennie’s performance perfectly walks the line between making Roger too much of an asshole (in which case you wouldn’t care what happens to him) or too likeable (in which case you’d feel too bad for him to enjoy watching his predicament). So you can root for him and still enjoy watching him get shot, stabbed, run over, poisoned, bitten, covered in shit, etc (man, this guy is practically Rasputin!)

He's his own Quentin Tarantino cast!

It’s rare for a thriller to consistently be both seriously tense and mordantly funny, but this one nails it. There’s plenty of creative action (all very nicely staged) and the film has a nice build to it, sustaining tension and creating a nice rhythm of wild terror and brief respite. On a few occasions, it gets a little too jokey (two morbidly obese twin policemen seem like they should be in a POLICE ACADEMY film) but mostly the tone has an almost Hitchcock vibe -- exciting and very lightly cheeky. Coster-Waldau (probably the best known in America out of the cast) is maybe a little less colorful than you might like from the villainous role, but he’s a credible threat and believable as a guy who has no compunction whatsoever about killing to get his way. Hennie, for his part,  is actor enough that when he’s called upon to be serious, he’s up to the challenge and can bring you along with him. So even when the plot seriously strains credulity, the two leads wrestle us back into caring.

As a blues song, it’s one of those ones which just works. I can’t seriously argue that it’s going to be an enduring classic, but it’s a rock-solid application of the conventions of the thriller genre. Those uppity Norwegians manage to squeeze the genre for all its worth, mining thrills, laughter, and even a little pathos out of a pretty by-the-book premise. Not that it’s completely predictable, either -- there’s one major red herring which took me, at least, delightfully by surprise. A little playful solo between the choruses. Like a blues song, the details may vary, but the fundamentals remain the same. You know basically how it’s going to play out, but that’s OK because the fun is in the actual playing out itself, not the end result. It’s not reinventing the genre. It’s just playing it for all its worth.  

The never said anything about shooting over spilled milk.
*There’s also a theory that he looks like Buscemi and Conan O’Brien (but shorter) which would be even more appropriate given his old "If they mated" bit.


  1. Holy shit. I actually thought that photo was a joke at first. Like, "Here's a photo of the actor...sike! That's just Steve Buscemi wearing a wig and making a Walken face" or "Sike! I went to and combined their faces." You were not kidding.

  2. This sounds like a less fucked up version of I SAW THE DEVIL.

  3. I would like to submit this image( as a defense of both the need to incorporate a little bit of O'Brien in this Buscemi-Walken lovechild & as a formal request for a NotCryingOverSpilledMilk tag.

    As an additional comment:
    I actually think that the lack of prelude before the Greve-Roger debacle is a signifier of the only really exceptional part of this movie. I say that because I think that it uniquely plays the audience, it uses the fact that while watching an action flick, we expect that kind of build up. The fact that it was missing was, in some ways, a huge give away subtly indicating to the audience that somewhere along the lines signals have gotten mixed up.

    I've been trying to think of a time when the omittance of an expected outcome was more effective at telling a part of a story on film than that... and I can't think of any other examples. Otherwise, agreed - it all just works, but doesn't leave a tremendous lasting impression.

  4. Dan -- you're right about that. As much as I like the predator/prey reversal in DEVIL, this one gets more simple, visceral thrills out of having a normal schmoe get chased down by an invincible secret agent. The protagonist here is so completely outmatched by his pursuer that it almost has a nightmarish, horror movie quality. But not as fucked up.

  5. I meant less fucked up as a compliment, too. This movie sounds awesome.