Be wary of any film whose purpose is to punish its protagonist. Such punishment is usually qualified as a process of redemption—nearly always a dubious prospect—and rarely do such efforts offer much more than the thrill of watching someone we’ve come to like suffer. Misanthropy is the defining quality of Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters, a new dark comedy from Norway, and like so much redemption cinema its nastiness is couched in claims of higher aspirations. It purports to be a film about many things, both big and small: We hear the reverberations of the European debt crisis, murmurs of a national malaise, one man’s personal anxieties manifested in a literal killer. But these are merely suggested, never elaborated on; there’s no greater meaning or import to glean here. When the hero finds himself entirely submerged in shit, you can be assured that the shit isn’t a metaphor. Like the film, it’s just shit.
The premise is so loaded with simplistic psychoanalytic implications that the screenplay might as well be co-credited to Jacques Lacan: Roger (Askel Hennie), a short headhunter deeply insecure about his stature, steals valuable works of art owned by the young professionals he’s meant to recruit in order to lavish his tall, exceptionally beautiful wife with money and gifts, thereby compensating for what he feels is an unforgivable personal shortcoming. Roger’s wife introduces him to a new acquaintance named Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a tall, good-looking guy who claims to own a rather sizable Rubens, which Roger naturally intends to lift for himself. Thus begins a series of thefts, chases, murders, and double-crosses so needlessly complicated that explaining them exhaustively would require a review 10 times as long, and it culminates in a climax laboriously calculated that at a certain point I didn’t know or care if it had left any plot holes unfilled. Narratives of this kind are almost inevitably more trouble to parse than they’re worth, and the effort expended in following along leaves you will little for actually thinking about what you’re watching critically. Though given how insubstantial Headhunters is, stopping us from thinking critically may have been the point.
The highest compliment one could pay Headhunters would be to compare it to any movie by the Coen brothers, as critics have been doing since its European debut late last summer. The most obvious similarity is tonal (it’s comic but darkly so, prone to sudden interjections of graphic violence), and because that’s a tone both critics and audiences find immensely seductive, Headhunters should be an easy sell on the basis of those comparisons alone. But a Coen brothers film often succeeds despite, rather than because of, its tendency to treat characters as sites of debasement and degradation; when they lean too heavily on humiliated caricatures rather than believable characters, their work suffers, which is probably why few prefer Burn After Reading to Fargo. If Headhunters owes a debt to the Coens, it’s most acutely to that sensibility, and the film has neither the empathy nor the imagination to tip the balance back toward well-rounded humanism. Roger’s persecution at times feels cosmically ordained, and taken in a different direction this might have been The Trial with semi-automatics. But Josef K was a sympathetic hero; he was us. Roger is nobody, a punching bag there to take a beating. Where’s the fun in seeing a cipher suffer? Headhunters needn’t be uplifting or even optimistic, but it’s much easier to care about a character when his existence feels less like an excuse for a punchline.