John Wyndham, when not inventing the English catastrophe novel, was occasionally wont to write wry little short stories with isn’t-life-quaintly-ironic themes. One of these, Oh, Where, Now, Is Peggy MacRafferty?, is about a young Irish girl who displays unsuspected guile and resourcefulness in order to achieve her dream of becoming a Hollywood actress. She succeeds largely because her background and character make her refreshingly different from all her rivals. Nevertheless, she is still sent off to the usual studio ‘finishing school’ in order that she can present herself appropriately to the public. And when the finishing school is over, she has been transformed into another cookie-cutter starlet, all traces of what made her so appealingly different expunged.
Wyndham was writing over fifty years ago, but the attitude he wrote about still persists today: Hollywood, rightly believing that audiences are always interested in seeing fresh new ideas and talent, scours the world for creative people and rewards them handsomely for working on big studio movies. But Hollywood is a business, and sees no need to change a profitable formula: so the fresh new ideas and talent of the imported creative people generally tend to get swamped by the same old formulaic movie-making they’ve supposedly been brought in to get away from. The number of people this has happened to is enormous: in recent years, John Woo, Sharlto Copley and Noomi Rapace, to name but three.
All this came to mind while watching Morten Tyldum’s new thriller Hodejegerne (English title Headhunters). This is a cracking little film, every bit as good as any American or British thriller I’ve seen in the last eight or nine months, at least, and much better than most.
Headhunters is a Norwegian film and therefore fair game for people currently making a fuss about ‘Nordic Noir’ – a name which I suspect indicates a greater fondness for alliteration than actual genre knowledge. At the risk of sounding a tad ‘I liked this band since waay before they were famous’, I’ve been quietly impressed by the Scandinavian facility for crime fiction since happening across the original Wallander‘s UK transmission back in 2009. All the recent fuss about these shows therefore leaves me with a vague sense of ‘been there, done that, knitted the sweater’. (Though I would thoroughly recommend The Bridge to anyone interested in promisingly bonkers thrillers.)
This is based on a novel by Jo (pronounced Yo) Nesbo (O with a diagonal line through it) and tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a high-flying Oslo recruitment expert. Roger is a very bright man with a somewhat atypical pathology and a diminutive stature. Because of the latter he constantly worries his wife (Synnove (O with a diagonal line through it) Macody Lund) is going to leave him, especially as she is very broody and he isn’t. In order to keep her affections he lavishes her with gifts beyond his ability to pay for them. However, luckily for Roger he has a second job, as a highly-professional art thief, but an averagely successful robbery isn’t even enough to help much with the mortgage.
Then he learns that Clas Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), a new client, is in possession of an immensely valuable ‘lost’ painting by Rubens – which should be worth enough to allow him to keep his missus in her accustomed manner indefinitely. Roger quickly makes plans to relieve Greve of the picture – but he has misjudged the situation in a potentially terminal fashion, and soon finds himself on the run from someone considerably more psychopathic even than him…
There’s something very pleasingly Hitchcockian about Headhunters, most obviously in the way the story largely boils down to being that of a man on the run, losing virtually everything he values in the process and forced into some horribly humiliating situations as he struggles to stay one step ahead of his enemies. The fact that Roger is an anti-hero rather than a genuinely good guy makes this much more palatable, as well as allowing space for some extremely well-handled character development. Aksel Hennie gives a terrifically nuanced performance as Roger: one point Roger seems to have achieved his heart’s desire, but then suddenly – and this manages to be completely startling and utterly logical at the same time – something happens which starts the unravelling of his world, and Hennie portrays this brilliantly. All the other performers are good, but it’s Hennie’s movie.
Of course, he’s allowed to do this courtesy of a tremendously solid script, which excels at dropping apparently casual details into early scenes which later turn out to be absolutely crucial to the plot. Every time I thought I’d spotted a plot hole, the screenwriters almost at once turned up with a fix for it. Not only is the story tightly-plotted and exciting, it also manages to be blackly comic in places and rather moving in others.
This being a modern Scandinavian movie, there’s some material here which Hitchcock was not allowed to put into his classic films, of course. I can’t imagine anyone outside the BBFC or the Daily Mail crypt has serious problems with nudity any more, but Headhunters is also properly grisly in places – I suspect this is towards the top end of a 15 rating in the UK – and features one scene which pet lovers will probably have considerable difficulty with: the payoff to this is a sequence so grotesquely bizarre and darkly funny it’s impossible to imagine it in a mainstream American film.
So how is it, then, that a low-budget Norwegian crime thriller manages to surpass most things produced by the big players in California, despite their working with much greater resources? I suspect the question answers itself. Low-budget Norwegian movies can afford to take chances and be creative with their storytelling, and they have to have smart scripts and good acting – if they want to stand a chance commercially, at least. The big studios, certain of their domination of the major markets, can afford to relax and turn out bland and formulaic thrillers with repetitive scripts and somnolent performances: I expect many people do like things to be comfortingly familiar, and some of them may have issues with subtitled films as well. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them, and annoyed at the lack of ambition of most mainstream English-language thrillers. Headhunters is an example of how these things should be done: well worth seeking out.
(Since writing this I have learned that a Hollywood remake of Headhunters is already in the works. Sigh. – A)