Obsession, betrayal and murder are some of the rich ingredients in this entertaining Norwegian noir crime thriller that has more twists than an old road and the blackly comic sensibility of a nation that spends half the year in darkness.

Adapted from the novel by best-selling Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, Headhunters opens with a short pre-credits sequence that nimbly introduces us to a masked Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) as he breaks into a house and snips an expensive painting from its frame. Roger’s salary as a corporate headhunter isn’t enough to fund the lavish lifestyle he sees as his due; his multi-million euro house, sleek suits and his gallery-owning trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). So to make up the shortfall, he steals art from well-to-do Oslo houses, selling it through his seedy security-guard intermediary Ove (Eivind Sander).

So far, so Thomas Crown. But things are not all that they seem. Crushed by his own sense of inadequacy, Roger lives in fear that his wife will leave him for somebody else: someone taller, richer and willing to give her the child she desperately craves. With his stash of money running out, and a payment on his enormous mortgage due, Roger meets the tall, wealthy and urbane Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who he immediately identifies as a perfect fit for an executive position at a high-flying technology company. More to the point, Clas lets slip that he has inherited an original painting by Rubens, stolen by the Nazis and stashed in his grandmother’s apartment. Clas and his priceless Old Master seem like the perfect target for Roger’s covert sideline. For the first time in his criminal career, however, the mark is prepared to fight back; first by apparently sleeping with Diana, then by letting slip that before beginning his climb up the corporate ladder, he was a highly-trained soldier and is still very handy with handgun and knife. As Clas comes looking for that which was stolen from him, Roger flees for his life, kicking off a brilliantly sustained hunt for vengeance that is consistently exciting and frequently surprising, falling somewhere between a morally indifferent Coen Brothers thriller and a Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoon.

The entire cast is superb but much of the film’s success is owing to an outstanding central performance from Aksel Hennie, whose character starts out smooth as glass but winds up shattered into tiny fragments. Goggle-eyed Hennie (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Buscemi) plays the covert criminal as an engaging combination of skilled resourcefulness and panicky idiocy. It’s a neat trick, because each new indignity the story throws at him, from being run to ground by Coster-Waldau’s unstoppable nemesis to being flattened by a speeding truck and dunked in an open sewer, transforms this self-serving Napoleon into a sympathetic character. With his sharp tailoring, smug smile and deep concern for how his hair is looking at any given moment, Roger is a smarmy creep; it says a lot for Hennie’s performance that we are willing to root for him, regardless, all the way to a breathless, blood-splattered finish.

As Roger is slowly stripped of everything he possesses and his prospects for survival darken, the story spasms deliriously into a rapid-fire series of ever more violent twists, exposing the characters as deeply flawed and compromised individuals, providing the film with substance as well as style. Director Morten Tyldum never allows the pace to flag, sustaining the finely-wrought tension and not allowing the viewer enough time to question whether the intricacies of the plotting are entirely sound. Similarly, there isn’t room for any of Wallander’s windblown moping or the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s expositionary chatter with Tyldum racing through his story, dextrously skipping over the numerous plot holes, determined to cram in another outrageously gory thrill or gallows-humour gag.

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