For a non-fan, the whole idea of the Nordic noir phenomenon can feel a bit strange: An entire genre of mass-market paperback thrillers dedicated to the idea that people in some of the world's cleanest, brightest, richest, most polite countries are really doing unspeakable things to each other behind closed doors. If you've watched either version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and concluded that the whole thing is not for you, fair enough. But the dark, nasty, brutally funny 2011 Norwegian movie Headhunters is something else. It's not a movie about people doing fucked-up things: It's a fucked-up thing itself.
For its first half, Headhunters fits squarely into the whole Nordic noir stereotype. It's got a cast full of statuesque people, most of them with dark secrets, moving assuredly through a world full of sleek cars and expensive housing and immaculately tailored clothes. Every interior gleams, and every exterior has that piercing blue-grey light that doesn't seem to exist anywhere else in the world. Roger Brown, the movie's main character, finds himself in some tense situations, but nothing seems to ruffle him too badly. But halfway in, when things spin out of control, they spin out of control hard. Not long after the first dead body pops up, Brown is bleeding and quaking and covered head-to-toe in human shit, driving a rickety tractor up a back-country road, a dead pitbull impaled on its grill. It's a perfectly reasonable movie that decided, halfway through, that it was done making sense and it was just going to wild the fuck out from now on.
Before everything really pops off, Brown is a smirking, in-control corporate recruiter. (That's where the title comes from: The movie features no decapitations, though there is one seriously tactile image of a caved-in skull.) Brown won't let you know it, except in voice-over, but he's a bit insecure, mostly because he's a weird, small, frog-looking man with a wife light years out of his league. So he tries to make up for shortcomings with cash, padding his income by moonlighting as an art thief. When he knows his corporate contacts are busy, he breaks into their houses and swaps their priceless artworks with fakes. That all goes pretty well until Brown meets Clas Greve, a towering Dutch businessman who just happens to own a Rubens painting that's been missing since World War II. This is the big score Brown's been looking for, and so it doesn't even matter that Greve spent time as a tracker in a mysterious elite military unit. Nor does it matter that he's played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who you will recognize as the Kingslayer from Game of Thrones. Brown just has to have that painting.
Headhunters is a movie that depends on a series of nasty and unlikely plot twists, and it would be a disservice to say too much more of what happens from there. A lot of its fun is in wondering what the fuck else the movie has up its sleeve. But I don't think I'll give away too much when I let you know that Brown should not have tried to steal that painting, or that Greve quickly becomes a steely-eyed Terminator type who brings death with him wherever he goes. Headhunters boasts a truly impressive body count, one of the reasons I'm writing about a nominal thriller in a column about action movies. (It also has shootouts and stabbings and one dog impaling and a couple of spectacular car crashes. Mythbusters has devoted an entire episode to proving that, no, you couldn't just walk away from the sort of wreck one character walks away from in the movie.)
Headhunters has plenty of thriller tropes: corporate espionage, adultery, black comedy coming out of its pores. But it's also a riff on a great, timeless action-movie trope: An ordinary person thrown into extreme circumstances, forced to rely on cleverness and luck to survive scenes that really, really should've killed him. Brown isn't a remotely sympathetic character as the movie starts, but you end up on his side soon enough. He earns your respect through his sheer ability to not die.
The movie, adapted from a 2008 novel by the Nordic noir don Jo Nesbø, is now the highest-grossing Norwegian movie of all time: That alone is proof that they are into some fucked-up shit over there. (Summit Entertainment bought the rights for a theoretically forthcoming American remake when the original movie was still filming.) It is a truly effective piece of entertainment, and the people who made it are inevitably moving on to bigger things. Director Morten Tyldum is already into Oscar-bait territory: His next movie was The Imitation Game, which earned a fuckton of nominations this year. Coster-Waldau could become an Alan Rickman-level Hall of Fame movie villain if his Game of Thrones character ever dies. (Book nerds: Please do not tell me if his Game of Thrones character is going to die.) Even Aksel Hennie, so convincingly weird-looking as Brown, has gone on to character roles in movies like Hercules and the forthcoming The Martian. It might be a while before any of them get to make anything this tense and small and fucked again, so the sense of lunacy and bloodthirst here is a thing to treasure. We won't see the likes of it again anytime soon.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
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