Friday, February 24, 2012

Happy Hunting: Headhunters at Film Comment Selects

After a few months of self-imposed confinement  and a run of heavy emotionally draining films, the festival thriller is back!  On Thursday I got myself out and over to the Walter Reade Theater where FilmLinc’s always eclectic Film Comments Selects series was in full swing.  I saw the recent buzz-creating Norwegian suspense thriller HEADHUNTERS and my seat probably has some fresh dents from all the shifting forward and jolting back this potboiler put me through.  

Before the film got under way, loveably impish instigator Gavin Smith quipped about the confusing state of today’s film industry, mentioning the likelihood of Headhunters hitting US theaters but lacking in certainty or if the run would last beyond “10 seconds.”  He also joked that we may see the promising director Morten Tyldum making a movie for Hollywood this summer, and this was a barb I think there is more than a little truth to.  His control over story pacing, riveting sequences, and the ability to keep the strings of a fairly complex tale from getting twisted up in knots will make him a highly sought after commodity.

At the start we enter the world and perspective of corporate recruiter Roger and his materialistically successful lifestyle.  He is upfront with the audience, though, about how it all hangs on a thread.  He is terribly insecure about holding onto the commitment of his picture perfect wife, so he spends money well beyond his means to maintain the home and possessions he thinks his relationship depends on.  To pull this off, he has fashioned himself into a living confidence machine.  By that I mean he exudes it as a business strategy to maintain his high status position and, to be certain, the corporate account that comes with it.  But he also practices the art of the con, gaining people’s trust and then, should the opportunity arrive, unburdening them of valuable artworks and replacing them with forgeries….without their knowledge or consent of course.  With the latter task, he has assistance from a charmingly “countrified” partner who adds a lot of off-color humor to the otherwise austere proceedings.

It’s seemingly business as usual as Roger deftly manipulates the players around him.  A high stakes gallery opening for Roger’s wife, who is conveniently (but conveniently for who?) entrenched in the art world, leads to an encounter with an individual holding too much potential intrigue in the international business scene, namely defense technology, for Roger to ignore.

And from this point, shit goes down figuratively and, during one unforgettable nerve wracking scene, literally.  The rest of the story is best enjoyed without having a clue beforehand, so my lips are sealed.  However, some praiseworthy qualities are worth pointing out.   

Headhunters joins several admirable movie clubs.  One group is cautionary tales of society’s emphasis on financial status and how it brings out the worst in people’s human nature until they do stupid, destructive, and self-destructive things.  The Square and A Simple Plan come first to mind.  But they weren’t nearly as much fun as this!  I would also fit Headhunters in with transformation films in which the protagonist experiences tremendous loss, undergoing change so significant it manifests itself physically as well as mentally.  And absolutely, it is a fine example of films that start out as one thing but turn into something else entirely.  What is notable is that Headhunters does so without losing sight of its central themes.  Yes, it ratchets up the action and violence to an intensity level that takes a backseat to no other exercise in genre pulp to recently come out, yet the emotional issues at the core of Roger’s character are not cast aside.

Technically, director Tyldum is a marvel.  The film has a knack for going down some familiar, but still riveting, genre paths and lurching left just when you think things are going right.
He uses the best methods of horror films, like false scares and jarring sounds to keep audiences firmly on the edges of seats.  There is also a fantastic score that dances about like the best Mancini.  While not a movie that relies on a body count, fatalities that occur do so in gruesome fashion, giving it an air of grave seriousness when it seems to be going over the edge into complete fantasy.  

I’ve said nothing of the setting so far.  There is a jarring intersection between polished, modern cosmopolitan imagery and an all too nearby untamed jagged countryside.  It’s a situation one might readily associate with Scandinavia, and appreciate if a fan of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and other tales from those shores.   

The experience of watching this film at Walter Reade took me back to last year’s Film Comments Selects and the tense and taut moments it was filled with.  Headhunters shares a prominent plot convention with the Korean nonstop runaway revenge train, I Saw The Devil, which was screened during that 2011 lineup.  If you are a fan of that movie, you’ll notice it instantly.  Let’s hope for a few more films with this element that could together round out quite an amazing little film fest!

With a plot that takes on so many twists, there are some who will no doubt revel in trying to find holes or loose ends in it.  I couldn’t find any, nor do I have any desire to look for them.  I am filled too much by the giddy joy of cinema that rushes at you kicking and screaming.

If you happen to be within striking distance of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, Headhunters plays there today at 4:15!  It’s a must-see on the big screen so get yourself there or wait in uncertainty for a US release.

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