Over the past few years, Scandinavian mystery novels have generated the kind of buzz that accumulated around Hong Kong action films in the late 1980s and early '90s. Stieg Larsson has earned a posthumous fortune, with more to come from the American remakes of the second and third installments in his Millennium trilogy. The next to benefit may be Jo Nesbø, whose serial-killer thriller The Snowman has been eyed by Martin Scorsese — and whose just-filmed best-seller Headhunters is exactly the kind of kinky, devious joy ride that moviegoers and readers crave.
Even before Norwegian director Morten Tyldum's screen adaptation, Nesbø's book had earned comparisons not with other crime novels but with the movies of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. The U.S. editions of his novels come stamped with the kind of cover blurbs usually handed to a potboiler specialist like the American suspense writer Harlan Coben, whose novel Tell No One similarly became an unexpected French art-house hit.
The most remarkable thing about Nesbø's prose in Headhunters, however, is the voice he constructs for his first-person narrator. His protagonist, Roger Brown, is simultaneously obnoxious and compelling, not the sympathetic figure you'd expect. While some of the torments he suffers in Headhunters recall the booby traps in Tarantino or Coen pictures, Roger is closer to a Bret Easton Ellis antihero — a charming snake whose confidence is too toxic to resist.
Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg's Headhunters screenplay retains that voice, allowing Roger (Aksel Hennie) to narrate. Married to Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), who has just opened her own art gallery, he works as a corporate recruiter — a job that doesn't pay quite enough to support his lavish lifestyle. To make ends meet, he steals works of art, using his client interviews to find applicants who own items of value. One of those is Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a Dutch army vet who owns a rare painting stolen by the Nazis. When Roger breaks into Clas' apartment, he finds an unwelcome surprise that sends his life spiraling out of control.
Both book and movie delight in torturing Roger, putting him through several grisly set pieces. (Somehow, they're easier to watch than to read about.) But these grotesque tribulations also underscore what separates the two antagonists: Roger is merely a garden-variety smug jerk (Mad Men fans may find themselves thinking of Pete Campbell), but Clas is evil. Once Roger must fight for his life, our sympathies shift to him almost by default.
It helps that Hennie's looks are striking but not conventionally handsome. If Roger isn't as admirable as the usual thriller hero, he's not as assured, either: In the opening voice-over, he admits to insecurity about his relatively short stature. When various plot twists chip away at what physical attractiveness he has, the movie peers beneath his surface smarm to find someone we can root for.
As with the Larsson books, which were produced for foreign screens by the same company, Headhunters flirts with outré sexual imagery — naked people firing blanks at each other, amateur porn broadcast to a live audience. At heart, though, it wants to be a love story, with the mutually distrusting Diana and Roger moving toward a more complicated relationship. But the movie's real passion lies in the hatred between Roger and Clas, whose relentless cat-and-mouse game keeps Diana mainly offscreen. Headhunters is ultimately less invested in the workings of a mature marriage than in the degradations that sometimes inform such a union.
But that goes with the movie's thrill-ride territory. Tyldum delivers the kind of sleek, sharp-edged, nastily entertaining suspenser that major-studio bloat has all but rendered extinct. It's no surprise that the U.S. remake rights to Headhunters were acquired while Tyldum's film was still in production. But in a more curious and open culture than ours, this brisk, deadly original would be tearing up America's multiplexes rather than just its art houses.