January 23, 2018

Posted April 28, 2012 by D. K. Holm

Fashions in detective fiction seem to go in waves. There was the long Agatha Christie polite mystery, followed by the overlapping hardboiled school. In recent years there has been the “novelty” detective (dwarf, blind, Russian cop), followed by the grim realism of James Ellroy and Don Winslow, among others, which is the current standard. In the past 10 years, though, the Scandinavian thriller has come to the fore.  The first Scandinavian mysteries popular in English were the 10 “Martin Beck” police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, many turned into American adaptations and also a series of homegrown TV shows. The Danish TV seriesForbrydelsen is one of the best shows on any television ever, and has been turned into the slow paced American knock off, The Killing.  In 1992, Danish author Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Smilla’s Sense of Snow) was an international best seller (and a dull movie), and while in recent years, the obvious leader is the Dragon Tattoo series, which also drew attention to the work of Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indriðason, Ann Holt, and numerous others in what is being called Scandinavian noir or when they come to the movies what I like to call film glacée.
Scandinavian noir films, such as Insomnia, are notable for usually being procedurals, often with political or social cause backdrops, a wide range of social strata examined (like the hardboiled school), and with troubled or disturbed main characters out of Dostoevsky. As with the Beck books, they offer internal critiques of the “Socialist dream states” of the north, especially the bureaucracy and myopia, and the women have none of the Christian inhibitions of the U. S. or England when it comes to nudity, sexuality, multiple partners, and even crime. The latest recipient of readership loyalty is the Norwegian Jo Nesbø. Yellow Bird, the same company that adapted the Dragon Tattoo novels, has made a film of one of his stand alone novels, Headhunters, though most of his books feature the series character Harry Hole.

headhunterguyTaking a page from Patricia Highsmith,Headhunterstells of successful businessman, the unusually named Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie, who has the cadaverous look of Steve Buscemi), who has a sideline in art theft, if only to keep his beautiful wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund, who, like Nicole Kidman inEyes Wide Shut, is introduced in all her coltish beauty buck nekkid in a bathroom) in the finery he thinks she demands. Brown is rather on the short and gargoyleïsh side, at least in his view, and he needs all the edge he can to keep his wife interested – when in fact, all she wants is a child. In daily life, Brown is a recruitment executive, a headhunter for major corporations. At his wife’s art gallery, Brown meets one Clas Greve (TV’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, fromGame of Thrones), who strikes Brown as a likely candidate for a computer company in search of a CEO. Greve seems even more attractive when Brown learns that the man inherited a rare Reubens from a relative. Little does Brown know, at first, that Greve is also a “headhunter” – hence the plural title.

More should not be said of this tale that relies on turnabouts and revelations as Brown slips from one predicament to another.1 The director is Morten Tyldum who is working from a script by frequent collaborator Lars Gudmestad, and the film seems to be loyal to the text. As with other Yellow Bird films, the technical credits are high, but unlike the second two Dragon movies, the pace is lively, and the characters continually rooted in realistic elements, despite the usually heightened events of a thriller.  The film in fact requires careful attention to its meticulous structuring. Few causal remarks, such as someone saying that they have a fear of dogs, are carelessly place, and the theme of “heads” and “hunting” are a common theme, fully woven into the film’s texture.

Still, Headhunters isn’t probably the best introduction to Scandinavian noir, though. It’s more of an Elmore Leonard type tale than an examination of northern social problems and congenitally unhappy people – though in one sequence Roger comes home to find Diana watching The Girl Who Played with Fire on TV. Still, like the Dragon movies before it, Nesbø’s novel is to be turned into an American movie at some point, so the subtitle reading averse will still be able to get the story.

1 Though I will add that Headhunters becomes the fourth of only four films I can think of in which a character is submerged in human feces. The others are Seven BeautiesThe Shawshank Redemption, andSchindler’s List.  Interestingly the other three are all prison films, and two of them are set in concentration camps.