Filling the void in the Nordic thriller market left by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (and even borrowing some aerial shots from the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), Headhunters comes with impeccable pedigree as an adaptation of novelist Jo Nesbø's 2008 international bestseller, and was optioned for an American remake even before its Norwegian release. Indeed, language aside, there are few if any culturally specific references to be found in Morten Tyldum's film, which will easily lend itself to translation into English given that it is already fluent in Hollywood idiom. This is a very mainstream movie that just happens to be in Norwegian.

For respected corporate headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), who prizes reputation above all else, the maintenance of appearances is everything. He dresses in the finest suits, lives in an immaculate house, showers his perfect wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) with expensive gifts (while denying her the baby that she truly craves), and oozes confidence. But all this is a front for a deeply insecure man, obsessed - as his voice-over monologues suggest - with his merely middling height, anxious that his wife will trade him in for a better, taller model, and worried, with good reason, about how to finance his overstretched lifestyle.

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Certainly Roger's day job as a respected corporate headhunter is not enough to pay the bills, so he moonlights as an art thief, breaking into the homes of his high-flying clients with the help of a corrupt security officer (Elvind Sander). With Roger's coffers near empty and the police circling, suave stranger Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) arrives on the scene just at the right moment.

Sure, the worryingly handsome – and even more worryingly tall – gentleman has clearly caught Diana's eye, but Clas' military and corporate background in tracking technology makes him a perfect match for the executive position at GPS firm Pathfinder that Roger needs to fill, while Clas is also said to possess a rare and valuable Rubens that could resolve all Rogers' economic problems in one swift domestic heist. Except nothing here is quite as it seems, and Roger is soon fighting for his love and his life against a different kind of headhunter perhaps even more ruthlessly calculating than himself.

Here, the Rubens painting is a classic macguffin depicting (significantly) a classical hunting scene. For this is a cat-and-mouse thriller, delivering all the wild twists and turns, charades and chases, that come with the genre. Yet while red herrings might be expected, it is the black comedy that is the real surprise, rescuing Headhunters from both Norwegian dourness and Tinseltown blandness.

The dark humour comes mostly at the expense of our not especially likeable anti-hero, whom the film positively delights in stripping of all the material and cosmetic trappings that he holds so dear. Yet even as we chuckle away at Roger's grotesque ordeal, we also recognise that his punishment reflects and dramatises the damage done to us all by a decade of living beyond our means, and the heavy price that now needs to be paid.

Tyldum may have crafted an entertaining potboiler (one scene pointedly shows a saucepan steaming away on the Browns' stove), but Headhunters is also very much a parable for our own credit-crunching, belt-tightening times, when business is bad, assets are stripped and even the tall eventually fall.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2011
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Adaptation of Jo Nesbo's bestselling Norwegian thriller about a headhunter who moonlilghts as a thief.
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Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg, based on the novel by Jo Nesbø

Starring: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Julie R. Ølgaard

Year: 2011

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: Norway

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