The world has been led down some bad roads by powerful men with inadequacy issues. However vaguely he conceptualizes them, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum aims to put a roadblock in front of as many as possible with Headhunters, a bizarrely comic, occasionally torture-porn-y morality play that zealously punishes one man just for having an inferiority complex.
The man in question — professional corporate headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) — remedies his complex a bit more elaborately than most. Roger is much shorter than he’d like to be, but he does what he can to distract the world from this fact. He’s married a woman (Synnove Macody Lund as Diana) who’s a full head taller than he is but devoted to him anyway because, he assumes, he’s been successful. But headhunting — vetting potential candidates for positions at businesses — doesn’t pay the kind of money that Roger needs to keep his wife happy, so he moonlights as a thief of expensive artworks, a job to which he devotes almost as much thought and precision as he does to framing the elaborate put-downs he aims at taller, handsomer men.
Actually, the two end up being one and the same: Roger’s supercilious interviews with prospective employees are mainly a front for casing men with expensive art collections. Inevitably, the handsomest, tallest interviewee is the one with the most expensive painting lying around his flat: a Peter Paul Rubens that, if properly stolen, could net Roger one hundred million kroner. The owner of the Rubens, ominously named Clas Greve (Nikolaj Koster-Waldau), is an art collector with a face like a Rodin, a stunted career as the head of a Danish pharmaceutical company, and most importantly, a history of killing for the Norwegian special forces. There is more than meets the eye in stealing a hundred-million-kroner Rubens from a guy like this.
Clas comes after more than his painting when he finds that the man who was supposed to be hiring him has actually ripped him off, and he’s willing to use every skill the Norwegian army ever taught him to get it. The wrath of Clas puts Roger on the run, where the movie takes its turn for the bizarre and punishing. At heart, Roger’s just an average guy, but when he winds up covered in human shit, swerving a farm tractor down a highway in the dead of night, the carcass of an attack dog lanced on its fork, the shame of limited stature doesn’t seem like so much of an issue. Clas — not to mention Tyldum, whose harsh trials are designed to teach Roger a lesson — has far more interesting things to put Roger’s focus on.
Headhunters is great in the moment, even if it relies too much on the hollow, just-desserts logic of so many crime thrillers. Tyldum is an excellent shooter; he has an impeccable eye for the most precise way to stage a scene and keep it moving. The movie moves, and like so many foreign thrillers that are big enough hits worldwide to acquire a US release, it provides the pleasant illusion that its skilled construction and exotic settings (Oslo and the Norwegian countryside could hardly be mistaken for your hometown) add up to more than shallow entertainment. But nobody who’s just watched this shit-covered Norwegian impale a dog on a tractor’s fork will walk away thinking they’ve just seen something illuminating.