Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Eivind Sander, Julie R. Ølgaard. (2011, R, 100 min.)

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 1, 2012

"You don't need a Ph.D. to realize I overcompensate for my height," smirks Roger Brown (Hennie). A 5'6", po-faced corporate headhunter, he works overtime trying to keep his Nordic goddess of a wife (Macody) luxuriously accommodated. But he isn't putting in extra hours at the office; instead, Roger has a profitable sideline gig stealing expensive paintings. (Craftily, he uses his day job to information-gather on the art collections of executives he headhunts.) When news of a Rubens original falls into his lap, Roger thinks he's found his next mark – Clas Greve (Game of Thrones' Coster-Waldau), a tech entrepreneur with a paramilitary background and a Flemish masterpiece stashed in his grandmother's closet. What Roger doesn't grasp – that is, not until quite a lot of blood has been shed – is that he's the one being played, not Clas.

Adapted from the book by Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø, Headhunters turns cat and mouse and stays that way during an endless middle, nettled with illogic, but boasting two attention-grabbing set-pieces: one staged in the bottom of a ravine, the other in an airless outhouse. (Somebody do give a prize to the sound effects whiz behind the film's shudder-inducing shitter-pit squelches.) But the film holds its twists too close to the chest, and there's little to chew on till the ambitiousness of its plotting is revealed late in the film.

And then there is, shall we say, the character issue. Likability shouldn't be a prerequisite for enjoyment – but in the thriller genre, at least, it's nice to have a dog in the fight. Who, then, to root for here? The trophy wife with negligible screentime? The silky-haired psychopath Clas? (Coster-Waldau has already done a lot with a dirtbag – see his murderous, sister-shagging turn as GoT's Jamie Lannister – but Jamie's got a better sense of humor.) Or Roger, the drippy compulsive liar suffering from charisma deficit disorder? (Having never read the source novel, I'm not sure if Roger's charmlessness is a Nesbø carryover or the collective efforts of Hennie and screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg.) If you look to genre precedents, you'll come up empty: Roger has no claim on the righteousness of the wronged man, nor does he have the genial wit of the gentleman thief. Instead, as indignity and then mortal danger are heaped on Roger's slender shoulders, I thought of another schemer who brought on his own ruin, William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo. In brief bursts, Headhunters glints with a "Coen Bros. do Copenhagen" style gallows humor. But there was an awful inner ache to Jerry, the sad sack who couldn't catch a break, whereas Hennie's Roger – first a cipher in a slick suit, finally the roughed-up prey-turned-predator – registers a blank throughout.

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Headhunters, Morten Tyldum, Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Eivind Sander, Julie R. Ølgaard

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