Think back to some of the most interesting protagonists in movie history. Are they necessarily the broad-chested, square-jawed ones gifted by the god of genetics? Mostly, they’re not. Generally, it’s the more morally ambiguous heroes that stick more readily in the mind.
So alongside memorable characters such as Tony Montana, Martin Riggs and, er, Han Solo, we can now add Roger, the central character of Norwegian thriller, Headhunters. Diminutive in stature and terrified that his leggy, attractive beau Diana will leave him for a superior male, Roger leads a double life: ostensibly earning a decent wage working as a corporate headhunter for a recruitment firm, he earns extra pocket money (and most importantly, the sort of money that keeps his other half in the manner to which she’s accustomed) as a part-time art thief. With the help of his partner in crime Ove, he steals his way into his victims’ homes, replaces the object of his attention with a forgery, and flogs it on the black market somewhere else in Europe.
The problem is, the artworks he’s pilfered up to the start of the film are relatively small beer; a new target, however, could provide the score he’s been waiting for. Enter strutting alpha male Clas Greve (Game Of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a retired CEO of a big business and, most importantly, the owner of a Rubens painting worth millions.
Naturally, Roger and his accomplice go for the painting and, naturally, everything goes terribly wrong. From this simple set-up, Headhunters descends into a hugely entertaining, unexpectedly funny thriller. Some of its occurrences are stock genre stuff – untrustworthy characters, double-crosses, twists and eleventh-hour rescues – but the situations themselves are often extremely imaginative, and painfully amusing.
Headhunters’ success is largely thanks to Roger. As hinted at earlier, he’s a fabulous creation, and many of the film’s funniest situations and edge-of-the-seat thrills occur because he’s so loveably useless. It goes without saying that he’s a flawed character – in the beginning, he’s a preening, self-absorbed, cowardly money-grabber – but his motivations are so down to earth and relatably human: beetling little thief though he is, all he really wants is to hold on to the woman he loves. Unfortunately, the way he goes about it is completely, deliciously wrong.
It’s often said in creative writing classes that you should put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him, but Headhunters goes further. Writer Lars Gudmestad, adapting Jo Nesbø’s novel of the same name, puts poor Roger through the kind of situations usually reserved for sinners in the worst circles of hell. In a way, this is fitting, because Roger’s a undoubtedly guilty of almost every deadly sin going – and through his encounter with Clas, he undergoes a perverse, incredible exciting sort of salvation.
Director Morten Tyldum keeps the film rolling along at just the right pace, perfectly mixing humour with moments of quite harsh violence – something that hasn’t been managed so successfully since Shane Black’s exemplary Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005. There are moments in Headhunters that match No Country For Old Men in terms of tension, and it’s often the case that the moments of levity provide a real relief from the flashes of bloodshed.
Askel Hennie, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Roger. Bringing just the right level of narcissism and vulnerability to the part, he’s great in every scene, and throws himself into the increasingly awful situations his writers have concocted with gusto. Coster-Waldau’s good value, too, as the film’s antagonist, and Eivind Sander is brilliant as Roger’s gun-obsessed, licentious sidekick.
Headhunters never attempts to be anything more than an entertaining pulp thriller, but that’s what makes it so utterly engrossing – its set-ups and pay-offs are positioned and then triggered with care, and it plays with audience expectations in a way that’s gratifying rather than forced. Its conclusion may be a little too neat, but that hardly matters – Headhunters is a perfectly-wrought puzzle box of a thriller, made all the more engrossing because its central character is so eminently watchable.