"You don't need a Ph.D. to realize I overcompensate for my height," smirks Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), the 5'6", po-faced corporate headhunter at the center of Headhunters. He works overtime trying to keep his Nordic goddess of a wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) luxuriously accommodated, but he isn't putting in extra hours at the office. Instead, Roger has a profitable sideline stealing expensive paintings. Craftily, he uses his day job to gather information on executives' art collections.
When news of a Rubens original falls into his lap, Roger thinks he's found his next mark - Clas Greve (Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a tech entrepreneur with a paramilitary background and a Flemish masterpiece stashed in his grandmother's closet. What Roger doesn't grasp - that is, not until quite a lot of blood has been shed - is that he's the one being played, not Clas.
Adapted from the book by Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø, Headhunters turns cat and mouse and stays that way during an endless middle, nettled with illogic. But it boasts two attention-grabbing set pieces, one staged in the bottom of a ravine, the other in an airless outhouse. The film ultimately holds its twists too close, and there's little to chew on till the ambitiousness of its plotting is revealed late in the film.
And then there is the character issue. Likeability shouldn't be a prerequisite for enjoyment, but in the thriller genre, it's nice to have a dog in the fight. Who to root for? The trophy wife with negligible screentime? The silky-haired psychopath Clas? Or Roger, the drippy compulsive liar suffering from charisma deficit disorder? Roger can't claim the righteousness of the wronged man, nor does he have the genial wit of the gentleman thief.
Instead, as indignity and then mortal danger are heaped on his slender shoulders, I think of another schemer who brings on his own ruin, William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo. In brief bursts, Headhunters glints with a "Coen brothers do Copenhagen"-style gallows humor. But there is an awful inner ache to Jerry, the sad sack who can't catch a break, whereas Hennie's Roger - first a cipher in a slick suit, finally the roughed-up prey-turned-predator - registers as a blank throughout.