What’s the worst thing that can happen to a movie character? Shot, stabbed, beaten, tortured? How about exiled, chased, shot, impaled, betrayed, sacked, savaged by a pitbull, involved in a tractor crash, chucked off a cliff and forced to hide under six feet of human shit?
Luckily, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. Director Morten Tyldum’s juggernaut thriller, based on Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s bestselling novel, stems from a simple but hugely satisfying idea: serve up an eminently hissable central character, in this case part-time art thief and full-time corporate douchebag Roger (Aksel Hennie, who looks like the love child of Steve Buscemi and Rupert Grint). Then sit back and smile as he tangles with the wrong folks and is subjected to the most humiliating indignities this smart, streamlined script can invent.
When we meet Roger, he’s happily married to a gorgeous woman (Synnøve Macody Lund), having a fling on the side and preparing to help himself to the priceless Munch lithograph owned by high-flying Swedish executive and former elite soldier Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Of course, we know it’s all a ploy – that Greve is luring Roger in for his own devious reasons, and that things are about to go horribly wrong – but it’s how Nesbø and Tyldum spring the trap that’s so enjoyable to watch.
It’s a timely film, too: while Nesbø and Tyldum’s prime directive is to give their audience a good bracing shake, they also find time to throw in a few witty, thoughtful asides about personal responsibility and the ways in which the relentless pursuit of wealth conflict with the achievement of true happiness. Bankers and business types may prickle at their blanket portrayal as greedy, self-serving misanthropes, but it serves to slot the film neatly within the current anti-capitalist zeitgeist.
But none of this would matter a jot if Tyldum didn’t have such a firm grasp of his material. The plot moves like a rocket, the despicable characters are marvellously sketched, and if ‘Headhunters’ is not always entirely convincing (a few twists take a bit of swallowing), it’s always deliriously entertaining. Anyone tired of the surly, leather-jacketed seriousness of the ‘Millennium’ trilogy and looking for more spark and spice in their Scandinavian crime sagas need seek no further. Pure joy.