A borderline repellant protagonist ends up earning our respect in “Headhunters,” a Norwegian thriller that’s equal parts Hitchcock and Road Runner cartoon.
Roger Brown (Askel Hennie) is a headhunter for a big Oslo corporation. He’s apparently very good at finding top-notch employees, but that’s not his real job.
Roger is an art thief. He conducts job interviews with well-heeled management candidates in order to learn about their habits and their possessions.
Then, with the help of Ove (Eivind Sander), his associate and an employee of a firm that maintains security for the city’s wealthiest homeowners, he sneaks in, takes the art out of its frame and leaves behind a reproduction. It takes weeks for the victims to realize they’ve been ripped off .
The script by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg (based on a novel by Jo Nesbot, who’s being hailed as Scandinavia’s new Sieg Larsson) sets Roger on a collision course with Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau, a star of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”). Clas, recently retired from a rival corporation, is as secure in his masculinity as Roger is nervous about his.
Roger thieves because it allows him to live beyond his means. You see, Roger is short and borderline ugly (he’s kind of a Norwegian Steve Buscemi), and he lives in constant fear that his beautiful, blonde, towering wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) will leave him unless he can satisfy her every material whim.
Learning that Greve has inherited a priceless Reubens painting, Roger sets in motion a plan to steal it. But while in Clas’ apartment he finds evidence that his beloved Diana has been there.
And before long Roger finds himself on the run, not from the cops but from a former black-ops type. It will take every bit of his skill and lots of luck to stay alive.
Hennie’s performance and Morten Tyldum’s firm direction provide an interesting arc for Roger, whose carefully assembled persona — outwardly cocky, inwardly insecure — is broken down and reassembled by the trials he goes through.
And what trials they are! He’s beaten, shot at, mauled by a pit bull, buried in feces. He survives an over-a-cliff car crash and a knife wound in the back. At moments “Headhunters” almost feels like a black comedy. What horrible thing will happen to our “hero” next?