If there’s a response one might expect to be fairly universal among audiences ten minutes into Morten Tyldum’s film Headhunters, it’s dislike for the film’s main character Roger Brown, one of the two characters whose occupations yield the film’s title. In the case of Roger, this means a full-time corporate job, but when it comes to the handsomely menacing antagonist Clas Greve, “headhunting” means something a little more sinister. Of course, between Roger’s adultery and his secret life as an art thief, we’re quickly forced to settle into morally dubious territory, as Roger’s newest heist – from Clas – sets the latter, an ex-mercenary, in vengeful pursuit.
But Headhunters hinges on a decidedly unclear moral compass. Throughout this film, a darkly comic exploitation of Roger’s suffering pushes us to squirm in tension not only because his life is threatened but also because his death would mean the end of the chase, the end of his punishment. It’s inarguable that Roger has brought trouble on himself, and not even for good reason – he keeps his and his wife’s lives in financial excess in an effort to alleviate tension over his emotional inadequacies – and our Western conception of justice can’t help but permit some small manner of pleasure in the crumbling of Roger’s world and the physical and mental reductions forced upon him. The film’s unapologetically black humour only increases as he moves further from the slick, duplicitous corporate suit of the first act to the fearful, physically ugly prey that the invariably dapper Clas’ non-stop pursuit turns Roger into.
The film’s success is partly due to director Tyldum’s ability to merge the film’s darker elements with its winding, quick-paced plot, which is often original and above all fun. Tyldum for the most part resists the obvious temptation to wallow, remaining committed to a relatively minimal approach throughout. The story is sometimes unpleasant; Tyldum seems to know better than to try to push this, allowing the comedy – and the thrills – to emerge naturally. Credit goes as well to the performance of lead actor Aksel Hennie, whose believable performance does a great deal of work towards balancing audience sympathies towards Roger. Without the tangible sense of humanity, which Hennie instills in the character, the film would fall flat.
And this is the other key to the film’s success: its well-acted and believable characters. At its heart, Headhunters is a story of betrayal, personal and professional. Roger’s betrayal of his wife, while gradually becoming central to the plot, is also what keeps us watching. We believe in Synnøve Macody Lund’s portrayal of a woman deeply in love with her husband, and in the conflict between both over whether to have a child, and it’s the emotional suspense of this irony – we know from the first minute that he’s a thief and an adulterer – that keeps us engaged with an unlikable character, even if it’s only to see him punished. The personal conflicts are palpable even in smaller moments, and they’re ultimately what allow us to remain connected to an increasingly extraordinary storyline.
In fact, perhaps the film’s greatest misstep is that the emotional reconciliation and redemption overshadow the climax of the film’s thriller plot, and by the time we arrive at a final showdown, it almost feels as though we are already in denouement. This issue likely exists in the novel that serves as source material as well, but there’s really no way around the fact that after the high-intensity and occasionally spectacular action sequences throughout the film, the climax has a bit of a lacklustre feeling. If nothing else, though, this serves as further testament to the committed and engaging performances from the film’s romantic leads. For thrilling, adult-oriented entertainment with a sly dark side, Headhunters should more than fit the bill.