For art thief Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, a day gig as a corporate recruiter is simply a convenient cover, an opportunity to quiz wealthy businessmen on their collections and keep his wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) from asking questions. But stonewalling the wrong job prospect gets him into more trouble than stealing paintings ever has, and sets the stage for the rare thriller that manages to be consistently surprising without sacrificing coherence.
Director Morten Tyldum and writer Jo Nesbø—the latter is a hugely successful crime novelist in their native Norway—deliberately wrong-foot the audience with a pro forma opening in which Hennie enumerates the rules of a successful heist in voiceover. But just before the familiarity puts anyone to sleep, in walks Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game Of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister), whose ambition for the top spot at a GPS firm has a distinctly feral edge. At first, Hennie only processes the details of the Reubens canvas hanging on his mark’s wall—a painting previously stolen by the Nazis—but when a guilty phone call leads to the discovery of his wife’s mobile phone amid Coster-Waldau’s sheets, Hennie’s suspicions are belatedly aroused.
From that point on, Headhunters’ title rapidly turns literal, and what seemed like a lightweight heist thriller careens into a bloody-minded game of cat and mouse. Hennie has never faced more than a prison term, but all of a sudden he’s running for his life, fleeing an adversary whose specialty is tracking others down. Bodily fluids flow freely, faces are turned to pulp, and an outhouse serves as a hiding place of last resort. Hennie, whose sub-average height serves as a motivator for his character’s one-upsmanship, is one of his country’s biggest domestic stars (Headhunters just missed the box-office record set by his 2008 film Max Manus), but here, he’s a perpetually endangered underdog, struggling to remain the hero of his own story. Scarred, humiliated, and eventually shorn, he looks less and less the part of a leading man, while the implacable Coster-Waldau seems to travel with his own touch-up team, forever hovering just out of frame. Not everyone can play the lead, of course, and there’s a nobility in accepting that fact. The increased life expectancy is merely a fringe benefit.