Adapted from the Jo Nesbo bestseller, Headhunters is a corporate thriller with a twist – actually a few twists, some less plausible than others but all of them serving a plot that fairly roars along. I don't know how Scandinavia became the go-to place for violent, intricately designed noir mysteries, but they seem to be producing them faster than herring at the moment.
This already has an eye on the Hollywood remake. The protagonist, instead of being called Lars or Sven, rejoices under the name of Roger Brown. Just guessing, but I don't think you'll come across many Roger Browns in Norway. In any case Roger (Aksel Hennie) works as a headhunter, with a fabulous instinct for matching the applicant to the job – it all hinges on "reputation", he reckons. His own rep is for big spending, not that he particularly likes his fancy Modernist home or masses of bling, but his wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) does. She's a blonde Nordic stunner who towers over him, and quite naturally he (ginger, runty) is worried she's out of his league: imagine Steve Buscemi married to Heidi Klum. Too bad Diana wants kids – he doesn't, and so in compensation buys her everything she wants, or everything he thinks she wants.
How he affords such largesse is the first twist. Roger's a "player", but like Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities he's practically going broke even on his massive salary. So he moonlights as an art thief – he is quite the expert, in fact, giving us a primer in how to beat the home-owner's alarm, replace the canvas with a cheapo forgery, sell it on the black market and so on. Introduced to Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an IT whizz who's tall, hunky and charming, Roger immediately identifies him as a candidate for a top job he's got to fill. He also realises he's just the sort of alpha male his wife might fall for (she's already made goo-goo eyes at him at her gallery opening). The big news, however, is that Clas has inherited a Rubens oil worth tens of millions, just the thing Roger would like to add to his portfolio of thefts.
And there's his mistake. Roger, too preoccupied with "reputation", this time seriously underestimates his opponent. Clas, before he went corporate, was a leading counter-terrorist agent, pioneering all kinds of technology to track down the enemy: the sort of headhunter you wouldn't want to tangle with. The game is on. What's clever about Nesbo's story, adapted for the screen by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, is that for quite a while we're not sure which character's the baddie here. Roger is pretty much a weasel, what with his smug office persona and his high-end thieving; he's also cheating on his lovely wife, as though determined to get his betrayal in first. Clas, on the other hand, is a hot-shot pro, self-confident where Roger is shifty, and he has the scars – literally, all over his back – to prove his mettle. At this stage he's also the aggrieved party: his Rubens has been nicked.
Headhunters also wrongfoots us with its shifting tone. At first it looks to be a crime picture with a chewy amoral centre, a study in how it's best to steal big – and portable – during an economic pinch. By degrees it morphs into a comedy of corporate manners, with two shrewd personalities striving to outwit one another.
Roger and Clas first size one another up over lunch; then they play squash. It's like Pinter's Betrayal meets The Thomas Crown Affair – is it better to steal a rival's artwork or diddle his wife? What we can't anticipate is the nightmarish escalation of the contest, as Roger discovers his opponent's black arts aren't just devious, they're deadly. Soon enough we are in stalk-and-shoot thriller territory.
When you gather you've been bugged by a microtransmitter, you may first take the precaution of ditching your phone, car, or computer. And if the pursuer is still on your trail, what goes next? Clothes, watch – wedding ring? For Roger it keeps getting worse, though I never thought to see the phrase "in the shit" take on so literal an implication. But when the only hiding place you have left is beneath a privy, the soft and smelly might be all that saves you. Put it this way, bunking down in a tent at Glastonbury will be a breeze once you've seen this. We have come a long way from the sleek glass-and-wood interiors of the early scenes, when Roger swanned through offices and galleries with his air of entitlement. Now he's lucky if he can turn a tractor into a getaway vehicle.
It's hard to think of another actor who has put himself through the ringer as Aksel Hennie does here – mauled by an attack dog, submerged in shit, dispatched into near-oblivion. I wonder if this humiliation is subliminally connected to the popular animus towards big business. Is Nesbo offering up Roger as an emblem of corporate wickedness getting its comeuppance? If so, he has not spared the rod. Director Morten Tyldum has put together a tough little package of crime and punishment, then dragged it through an ordeal of grotesquerie that makes you wonder if the punishment hasn't eclipsed the crime altogether. If it does look pretty sadistic by the end, then at least it's sadism carried off with style and a crushing black sense of humour.