Headhunters (US - BD RA)
Gabe takes a trip to Norway for this slick and stylish 'Scandi Crime' thriller...
Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a charming scoundrel and Norway's most accomplished headhunter. He lives a life of luxury well beyond his means and chooses to subsidize his expensive lifestyle through stealing highly-prized art. When his beautiful wife, an art gallery owner named Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), introduces him to a former mercenary named Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is in the possession of an extremely valuable painting, he decides to risk it all in order to obtain it, and in doing so, he discovers something which marks him as a hunted man.
Apparently, Scandinavia is going through a bit of a crime fiction renaissance, stoked largely by Stieg Larsson’s incredibly popular Millennium Trilogy (aka: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels). This has, not surprisingly, extended to the region’s theatrical releases and Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters (aka: Hodejegerne) has been grouped with this new ‘Scandi Crime’ genre heading. If Headhunters is any indication, the Scandi Crime genre is another child of the French New Wave crime cinema, specifically Jean-Pierre Melville. Yeah, I know I’ve been talking about Melville a lot lately, more or less every time I review a calculating crime movie, but this is only because Melville’s work is that influential. I am entirely unfamiliar with Tyldum’s other work, but his direction here is smooth and even-handed, almost nothing like what we’ve grown to expect from modern thrillers, post- Bourne. The framing and blocking is studious and the camera music is almost entirely narrative-driven, rather than particularly showy. As the film progresses and the story turns darker, he introduces more handheld camerawork and dirtier sense of production design, but doesn’t overplay it or turn the film into a stylistically uneven horror show. Besides his more obvious Nouvelle Vague influences, I see a lot of ‘90s John McTiernan in his work (though this may just be me confusing the plot similarities to The Thomas Crowne Affair), while the voice-over narration and super cool, verging on downright cold style recall Melville-inspired neo-noir near-classics, like Michael Mann’s Heat and Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake.
Working from author Jo Nesbø’s novel of the same name, screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg are good at effectively setting up the characters, premise, and specifics of the plot without over-explaining things to the audience, but in all, have written a rather unremarkable story with weirdo suspense beats that make the story worth telling. Tyldum’s direction helps guide this particularly mechanical plot between the outrageously violent moments that allow him to flex more stylistic muscle. His big shortcoming as a storyteller comes just before the climax, where he stops his momentum dead to deal with Roger and Diana’s dull, mopey relationship issues. Otherwise, Headhunters is a fine example of building tension by steadily amping up a plot’s propulsion. Lead actor Aksel Hennie’s performance anchors the entire film in the tradition of many criminal protagonists that watch their artfully crafted worlds collapse around them. He presents a character that is difficult to like, but very easy to root for as things spiral out of his control. It’s also interesting to finally see Nikolaj Coster-Waldau acting in his first language, following two seasons of Game of Thrones. His work as Jamie Lannister has certainly left an audience prepped to root against him as a relentless and efficient bad guy.
Headhunters was shot 35mm and is presented in full 1080p, 2.35:1 on this Magnolia Home Entertainment Blu-ray release. This is a slick film and a slick film calls for a slick HD treatment. There’s enough black grain and basic textural impurity to ensure we know we aren’t watching a digitally shot movie, but otherwise, clarity defines the look of the film. The general look of the film is consistent, including a lot of medium close-ups with softened backgrounds and a cool, subdued colour palette. The sheer quantity of clean white walls, wardrobe items, and set decorations could easily turn into a sea of compression artefacts, but, aside from some minor haloes and the aforementioned film grain, there’s very little muddying the intended purity. Fine texture and other small details aren’t usually outstanding in their sharpness, though there are exceptions, specifically when the production relocates to more generally textural forest locations. The cool palette is somewhat unnatural-looking by design and can appear especially jarring during some of the sequences set outside the cleanliness of the city. There is a basic blue tint over much of the film, which doesn’t really affect the purity of the whites or blacks (though there are some odd sequences that feature particularly washed out blacks for no apparent reason), but does ‘lavender up’ some of the flesh tones and ‘green up’ some of the yellows. Natural browns and the fuller, lusher greens survive the tint issues without incident and tend to cut effectively against the rest of the palette. The darkest night scenes are the exception to most rules, appearing much more grainy than the rest of the film and featuring more of a green tint. These scenes also feature some minor ghosting effects on a few occasions.
Magnolia give us two audio options, the original Norwegian and dubbed English, both presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. This is a relatively understated mix that depends more on music than effects for mood (to its detriment at times). Ambient noise (especially rain) and basic directional work (like a door closing on the right of frame as a character enters) works just fine, it’s just not very flashy. There are a handful of standout audio design movements, including a bit where Roger imagines his wife sleeping with Clas while trying to maintain his cool façade. Here, the sounds of passionate sex pop into the stereo channels and interrupt the otherwise stale conversation. There’s also a brief car vs. tractor chase, a tussle with a loudly barking dog, but probably the finest moment for the mix is a crushing, gory vehicular impact. The original music, credited to Trond Bjerknes and Jeppe Kaas, has a particularly ‘90s sound to it. I specifically hear a lot of James Newton Howard’s action/thriller work. The score alternates between jazzy background noise and driving, plus ever-building thriller cues, all of which feature plenty of stereo and surround enhancement, along with effectively punchy LFE coverage.
The brief extras begin with Behind the Scenes of Headhunters (22:40, HD). This making-of featurette covers the apparently rocky production from Nesbø’s novel to adaptation, casting, direction, shooting stunts (including the Top Gear car-a-pult), and the use of a partially digital pitbull dog (pitbulls are apparently illegal in Norway). It includes interviews with director Morten Tyldum, stars Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Eivind Sander and Synnøve Macody Lund, cinematographer John Andreas Andersen, producers Asle Vatn and Marianne Gray, and writer Lars Gudmestad. The disc also features a trailer and trailers for other Magnolia/Magnet releases.
Headhunters isn’t quite the mind-blowing foreign thriller surprise I was hoping for, but then, you don’t get surprises when you’re looking for them. Overall, it’s just twisty and quirky enough to genuinely satisfy – it’s just not destined for ‘future-classic’ status. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds sharp with a few minor exceptions, but is thin on extras, featuring only a brief EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette. Headhunters is recommended viewing, but certainly not a must-buy.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 28th August 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Norwegian and English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Behind the Scenes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund
Genre: Action, Drama, Film-Noir and Thriller
Length: 100 minutes
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