Headhunters (Magnolia Pictures, R)

headhunters sqOne thing foreign films do that American ones fear is that they cast interesting people. Roger is played by Aksel Hennie, who looks like the love child of Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi.

 

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The thriller was once a genre in Hollywood. There used to just be exciting, intriguing stories about characters in bad situations, with twists and turns, suspense, and maybe some violence along the way. Now, the American thriller has been taken away and replaced with, basically, lower-budget action films. I think about a movie like Man on a Ledge, which has the setup of a thriller, but feels the need to include car chases in which cars pull in front of trains, and people jump from building to building. Big-budget action films have become absurd, massive effects extravaganzas, leaving regular action movies to be defined as thrillers, and removing the need for—well, actual thrillers. I went back to my movie lists of recent years and the last good American character-based thriller I could find was the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Lookout, which came out in 2007. Luckily, other countries have got us covered. France has been putting out some interesting stuff in recent years, and now Norway has entered the game with Headhunters.

Headhunters focuses on a man named Roger Brown. I’m not sure if that is actually a Norwegian name; it seems odd when characters named Roger and Diana exist in the same movie as Clas, Ove, Stig, and Lotte. Maybe that’s just my ignorance. Roger is an executive headhunter, but in his free time he also works as a classy art thief. In his opening narration, he theorizes that one day he will either get caught, or steal a work of art that is so valuable he will be able to retire. Just such an art piece seems to fall into his lap when his wife, Diana, introduces him to Clas Greve, whose grandmother has left him a very rare, presumably lost painting. As Roger learns more about Clas, he realizes that this is a dangerous man, the kind you may not want to steal from. But he does steal from him and, surprisingly, the heist goes off relatively smoothly. It is after the heist that things begin to unravel.

One thing foreign films do that American ones fear is that they cast interesting people. Roger is played by Aksel Hennie, who looks like the love child of Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi. In other words, he looks like a character actor, and yet he is the lead of this mainstream film, and he has the charisma to keep the audience engaged. Clas Greve is the one who looks like a traditional leading man; he is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who American audiences may know from Game of Thrones. This dynamic works. There are several references to how short Roger is, and he fully acknowledges that he is insecure. It makes the conflict between the two men much more interesting than if they both had matinee idol looks.

I won’t get into specifics of the plot, but the film is constantly moving, shifting, and keeping us on edge. There are moments of action but they always feel real, and natural in the story. Roger Brown is a businessman, and if he gets into a gunfight and wins, it’s probably just blind luck. The film is expertly made and moves along at a snappy pace. Because thrillers like this are so rare, it seems better than it actually is. I doubt I’ll be thinking much about it in a few weeks, but while I was watching it I was having a lovely time. It’s the kind of slick, enjoyable movie that mainstream audiences would love—if you could convince them to watch it. | Sean Lass

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