By Adam Knight

There is little doubting that the posters for Headhunters splashed around London’s tubes look cool. They’ve got guns, suits, beautiful women, Scandinavian names, all frozen in blue, white and red. They tick all the boxes- dark thriller 101. It would be enough to get me through the door.

In reality, the film is cool – or at least it features all of the sharp suits, cars and women that we all know mean that it’s cool. It is dark.  And it does thrill. You’re going to pay your £8, and you’re going to be near to the edge of your seat for the next hour and a half.

The best thrillers though, put you there because you care about the character. You might hate the lead, love him, or hate that you love him, but regardless there’s got to be a reason why you don’t want a character to be shot, stabbed or framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Even if you don’t know exactly why he’s being shot at, stabbed or chased until the final scene.

This is where Headhunters disappoints – the characters never make that jump to being anything more than the two-dimensional Armani advert of the movie poster.

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is 1m68 – 5ft and change in English- and his achingly gorgeous girlfriend is a bit taller.  And this is about all we are given in terms of real insight into their character.

While Roger frames the film with references to an implied Napoleon complex, the narrative itself is shaped more by the fact his small frame allows him to fit in cupboards and fetid outhouses to avoid capture.

As far as anti-heroes go, he is unlikeable not because of great moral shortcomings, or despicable acts of cruelty, or even his briefly-featured infidelity.  His desperation while on the run is so pathetic, and clammy and outmatched that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. It’s overpowering to the point that he is less an underdog than a cockroach, surviving one nuclear holocaust after another but looking ugly and slimy and unloveable while doing it. After an hour of this, it’s hard to keep rooting for the cockroach.

The film, as a response to his dual sins of infidelity and greed, hammers him relentlessly for 60 minutes with the unforgiving tone of Chaucerian morality tale. The narrative continually denies any character on screen the briefest sense of resolution or peace until the final few minutes, and there is little evidence that, though subjected to some pretty rough treatment, Roger is categorically deserving of redemption.

Within the first half-hour he is stripped and cleansed in a remote lake in what feels like a clarifying metaphor for a life poorly lived. A few scenes he is up to his neck in the brown stuff- and I assure you, I wish this was a metaphor.

As far as narrative landscapes go, the great Norwegian forests provide as powerful and isolating backdrop for a modern thriller as can be found. If the Coen Brother’s American plains are threatening in their sparcity, it is the threat of what can be found in the trees that stalks Roger’s fraught evasion. There is a constant danger in the film’s remote settings that holds the tightly strung score with a powerful darkness that at times sits at odds with the farcical violence of the chase.

If the great Roger’s redemption comes late, at the expense of dogs, ex-lovers and billionaire-businessmen-slash-Jason-Bournes, it feels a little hollow. We are perhaps not intended to feel a flood of empathy towards Roger and his similarly unfaithful wife, and accept their survival in the face of so many other deaths not as a moral commentary but simply that, through much luck and some intelligence, they won the war.

The problem is it feels in Roger’s closing exchanges with his hunter, Clas Greve (Nicholaj Coster-Waldau), that he is in some way saved by true love- that old chesnut. If there is one thing that this eclectic thriller lacks throughout, it is love. Characters are mercenary in their careers and relationships, and while Greve’s insatiable killing spree as a hired gun is supposed to reveal, by juxtaposition, the Wall-Street-esque Roger as a suit with a soft side, in reality it only makes him slightly less brutal and conniving than a psychopath.

In an early scene the director, Mortem Tyldum, pairs them in a shot both standing in profile, their slicked hair in perfect symmetry, Roger looking like a short, Boardwalk Empire-era, Steve Buscemi. While he is quick to lose the suit, the hair, the arrogance, there is little of substance that leads you to think that, on seeing Roger again besuited, slick and ‘reputable’ in the final scene, that any epiphany was little more than momentary and motivated by fear.

Similarly the Bonnie to his Clyde, Synnøve Macody Lund, holds the screen with the all the emotion and angular beauty of the IKEA model house they share. We are not really given reason to believe in them, over and above the multitude of other sinners, and yet are somehow told to.

Leaving aside the fact that the film’s protagonist leaps from slick savant, to a man who attempts to outrun a Mercedes on a tractor, and back again, the tone has a tendency to swing between genres. While the fingerprints of Mikael Wallen, producer of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, can be found on the best, darkest scenes too often they are smeared by action scenes far-fetched to the point of comedy.

The local police, two of whom are 400-pound identical twins, bring well-written levity to the movie. Their relationships, between city and country, rank and file, provide genuine moments of character and comedy- notably in a scene with the four-plus-Roger rammed into a squad car. However, within minutes we are treated to a close-up of a bloody skull smashed beyond recognition and a pained Roger dry-shaving his own scalp with blood running down the side of his face. Such jumps leave the movie seeming just a little confused as to what it’s trying to be and while violence in itself is drives any thriller, the best ones leave space for the threat of violence to hold their audience. There are quality moments where the very menace of the film’s killer can be viewed in the hollowed eyes of Roger, but too often the violence comes hard, fast and ridiculous.

This is not the biggest criticism you could level at a thriller, but it is its most limiting. It’s the difference between people remembering it in 12 months or not.

Headhunters actually filled in several scenes with aerial shots directly from the region’s latest, greatest, noir-esque hit, Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Ultimately it felt like it borrowed more than that. There’s no doubt that Headhunters is entertaining, and has a decent ending that will walk you out of the cinema feeling the film was slightly better than it actually was. However you get the sense that it’s cashing in a little more than it should on the Scandinavian-thriller’s-are-cool meme, in the same way that there are suddenly about 20 t.v. shows and movies about vampires around at the moment.

Go and see it if you like your thrillers fast and loose, but know you’re getting something a little closer to Street Kings, than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.