Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) makes his living as a corporate recruiter, finding talented people who work for other companies and making them lucrative offers to join the firm currently signing his paychecks. Roger's work pays a handsome salary, but he suffers crushing insecurity when it comes to his beautiful wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), and he constantly showers her with expensive gifts in hopes of staying on her good side. Between Diana's expectations and the expensive tastes of Roger's mistress Lotte (Julie Olgaard), Roger needs cash, so he's taken on a high-paying second job – stealing rare works of art. Roger is just good enough and smart enough to know that he'll get caught eventually, and when he learns of a man with an authentic Rubens, he hopes to make one last score that will keep him well set for a long time. But Roger soon learns there's a catch – the man with the painting is also someone he's supposed to recruit for a client, and he's clearly a few steps ahead of Roger.
Most thrillers make do with the looming threat of discovery or the loss of life; the threat is extreme, but also often comfortably generic. In Morten Tyldum’s scabrously entertaining Norwegian feature the dangers are designed to speak to the fears and flaws of the man on the run: corporate headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie). Adapted from a novel by leading Scandinavian crime writer Jo Nesbo, Headhunters doesn’t just make the audience fear for the protagonist’s existence, it tears down the support structure for his ego and literally strips Brown bear of the trophies a successful life has given him. Everything he values is revealed as worthless, everyone he trusts is suspect.
Brown has a chip on his shoulder he’d rather stand on – he’s short enough that he’s spent his life looking upwards at what he wants, and that includes his blonde valkyrie of a wife, Diana (Synnove Macody Lund). Keeping her in the style he assumes she’s accustomed to is an expensive business for a man already dedicated to creating the impression of success, so Roger has a neat sideline in art theft. He finds out if the already successful businessmen he’s recruiting own any valuable art and then with the assistance of sleazily bent security firm staffer, Brugd (Joachim Rafaelsen), he steals the original and replaces it with a fake while they’re at an interview he set up.
When he meets former Dutch special forces soldier and retired CEO Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), he sees both a rival and a major score – the effortless alpha male has a painting worth many millions, but stealing it turns Roger’s life upside down. Bodies start appearing and Clas proves to be an implacable foe. With a background in tracking devices, he literally hunts Roger, and each time he gets close the increasingly harried target has to ditch another symbol of his successful life; the credit cards and expensive watch are lost, he smashes his own phone, then he must strip off his suit. Roger begins to suspect that is wife is in cahoots with the dashing Clas, and Tyldum takes great pleasure in squeezing out his displeasure.
Roger literally has to stop being himself – several scenes suggest a physical transformation, and the dominant theme is not merely survival but rebirth – to stay alive and the genre is smartly tweaked along the way. The production values are clean and crisp, but Clas is a little bland as a character – he’s like a really, really handsome Terminator: he never stops (having great hair). Still, the movie’s feel for Roger and his long suppressed self-doubt is a more than effective hook, and it allows him to discover not just what he’s capable of, but also whether the easy platitudes such as 'I love you" actually mean something at a low point. Aksel Hennie’s performance is tinged with incredulousness and despair, and what he goes through sticks with the character – and the audience – right to the final scene. Headhunters proves that you really do have to be cruel to be kind.