Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is what is known as a headhunter. He specialises in securing the services of top businessmen for top companies, and gets a nice fee for doing so. But Roger is all about the overcompensating - for his height (or lack of it), for his abrasive personality, for his plain looks - and to do so he feels the need to amass more money thanks to his funds not matching the expense of his lifestyle. What this leads him to is a life of crime: art theft, where he has a set of personal rules to follow and he's never been caught yet...
Headhunters was based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, one of those Scandinavian crime fiction experts who became the talk of the world's bookshops in the 21st Century, here following in the footsteps of the late Stieg Larsson with his Millennium Trilogy by making a move into movies. The results were a lot less socially conscious than the films made of those, and actually more enjoyable as once again this Norwegian effort proved if you had a good story, a solid script, then that was half the battle in getting a decent film made. Indeed, what director Morten Tyldum illustrated was that you didn't even need a huge budget to compete with Hollywood.
As seen when this was sold around the globe and generated such admiring word of mouth that it became a minor sensation, winning that by then time-honoured acclaim: see the original before Hollywood makes an English language remake of it that simply doesn't match it. The plot, for all the twists and turns it developed into, was of the straightforward taking the main character down a peg or two variety; he begins proceedings smug and cold, but then meets his match in someone who smugger and colder, and so we go from wanting to see him brought down to earth to wanting to see him outsmart his antagonist. Which is tricky because that antagonist appears to have all the answers to any questions he should care to raise.
The villain here is not Roger, as he is more of an antihero considering his eventual humiliation than whatever noble qualities he may have had in the first place. When we first meet him he doesn't seem that much fun to be around, but when his loving wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), who he thinks is sticking around for his money and the possibility she may win him over to the prospect of having children, introduces him to retired businessman Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from fantasy series Game of Thrones) he senses an opportunity. Initially because he believes he can set up some needy company with Greve's services, and further to that because the wealthy chap has a priceless Rubens in his apartment.
So how does that opportunity lead to a panicking Roger driving a tractor as fast as it can go (not very) along a rural road at night while covered in shit and sporting a dead dog impaled on the front of the vehicle? It's best not to delve too deeply into where it goes from its icy beginnings before you watch Headhunters, as finding out is most of the fun. It is true the filmmakers took uncommon glee from torturing their protagonist to the extent that it almost turns into a black comedy such is the extreme nature of his tribulations, and you can be surprised into laughing at Roger's descent into Hell. At one point he asks in exasperation of his tormentors "Are you all insane?!" and that's the way it seems, as if everyone in the world has gone off their rockers to punish him way out of proportion to anything he thinks he could have done. Yet out of such overreaction comes a greater understanding of newfound morality, a conclusion which does slacken the tension, but remains overall a highly satisfying thriller. Music by Trond Bjerknes and Jeppe Kaas.
[The Blu-ray and DVD have an informative behind the scenes featurette and the trailer as extras.]