Too many thrillers just aren't very thrilling. Usually it's because they rely on big action setpieces, cheap plot devices, or Morgan Freeman to twist our arms into caring about what's happening, and as a result we don't care enough.
In the first half-hour or so of Headhunters, a stylish Norwegian thriller, I found myself reflecting on this, poised as I was quite close to the edge of my seat. "Here is a protagonist who, while clearly competent, isn't especially likable, and yet I care about what's happening," I said to myself, "not to mention what is sure to happen when the shit hits the fan. I wonder why I'm so engrossed, when so many similar films have failed to engage me much."
I don't think it was my admittedly conscious hope that someone would be beheaded later in the film (which never happens). No, it must have to do with the characters being drawn as realistic humans, rather than as movie-plot delivery systems. The excellent Michael Mann crime drama Heat did this well too, albeit with a more indulgent running time than Headhunters'.
The aforementioned protagonist is Roger (Aksel Hennie), a hotshot corporate recruiter whose income isn't quite sufficient to fully pamper his statuesque wife, so he's also an art thief on the side. One day he meets Clas Greve, who's played by the unmistakable Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones' smarmy prince dude (wait, that's not specific enough…umm, the incestuous one. Is that specific enough?). Within seconds of their first conversation, the plot visibly thickens, and we viewers yell at the TV "No Roger, don't rob from THIS guy," but he does, and verily, the fan is hit by shit, big time.
At times, particularly around the middle of the film, the consequences of this fan-shit-hitting border on ludicrous, but Hennie's intensity and vulnerability keep things grounded, if occasionally just barely. Some of the late developments are really predictable, but the stakes escalate so much (and a couple of twists are pleasingly twisty) that we don't mind being proven right. It's also refreshing that almost every character's choices make sense, and at almost no point does anyone do anything truly idiotic just to further the plot (except as mentioned in the previous paragraph—and even that decision is justifiable, in that the protagonist is desperate enough to plausibly suffer a lapse in judgment).
It's nice to be able to more-or-less unequivocally recommend a movie for once. (For you squeamish types, there's intermittent but intense gore and sex.) I liked the performances, I liked the story, and I liked the ending—which is kind of key, because movies like this so often end the same way (with hero and love interest cradling each other in shock blankets amid smoldering wreckage as the camera ascends and zooms out…or, if it's an indie, with everybody lying dead). Without spoiling it, I'll say that I feared the ending would be corny, empty, and/or contrived beyond believability, and it wasn't.
(P.S.: This one's on Netflix Instant, and if you're worried about terrible English dubbing, have no fear; Headhunters is subtitled.)
Star Score: 4 out of 5