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Headhunters: Morten Tyldum – Nesbø fills the Larsson vacuum





Headhunters – Morten Tyldum

The stunning success of Scandinavian crime fiction over recent years is now being replicated on film. Of course Stig Larsson’s posthumous triumph with the Millennium Trilogy drew world-wide attention though Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series of novels already enjoyed a wide readership in the UK and the rest of Europe sustaining a long-running TV series on Swedish TV recently shown on BBC4.
Denmark’s The Killing, now filming its third series in Danish, developed word-of-mouth cult status in the UK and spread widely enough to generate a made-for-US series. The Killing was written by Peter Brandt Nielsen and unlike the Larsson and Mankell, started life as a film script not an adapted book. Its phenomenal success has made a cult star of Sofie Gråbøl as feisty detective Sarah Lund and rejuvenated the Danish knitwear industry. Its commercial success also helped fund the modestly successful Political Drama Borgen recently shown also on BBC4.

Not to be left out, Norway’s Jo Nesbø has been filling the vacuum left by Larsson’s untimely death with a series of excellent, heavily plotted novels featuring his alcoholic policeman hero Harry Hole. Fast paced, very cinematically episodic; Nesbø’s stuff is gripping, sometimes gruesome and always compulsive. If you haven’t tried him, The Snowman is particularly good. What he does not offer is the powerful, feisty, interesting female characters that distinguish Larsson and The Killing franchise.

I believe Headhunters was released in hardback during 2011 but the paperback was only released 29th March presumably to tie in with the film. Indeed, unlike most of Nesbø’s work it could be set almost anywhere and lacks that distinctive, austere, broody Scandinavian tone and atmosphere paradoxically deepened, not lightened by snow. Perhaps this is intentional; along with neutral, accessible character names to counteract the negative impact of sub-titles on the commercial market.

The Headhunters film has been produced by the Yellow Bird company originally set up by Henning Mankell though now sold on, which released the original Swedish subtitled Girl with Dragon Tattoo trilogy starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. In fact on reflection Headhunters looks like a planned project to write a book-for-film at the outset. Nothing wrong with that but it does make it less distinctive.

Though not a Harry Hole story, Headhunters is a pacy, tense thriller with genuinely surprising twists and strong performances all round. Roger Brown is by day a ruthless, unpredictable corporate headhunter of top executives. By night he steals Art works from clients or friends of clients whose movements he is able to establish through his job thus enabling him to burgle them more easily. He is aided in this intra-mural evening work by Ove, a corrupt policeman able to disable burglar alarms through his inside knowledge and access to police equipment.

Over-compensating for his modest 5’7” height Roger is married to tall, beautiful, intelligent Diana who longs for a baby Roger has no intention of giving her. When Diana introduces him to Dutch ex-CEO Clas Greve, Roger headhunts him and learns that Clas’s recently deceased Norwegian aunt owned an original Rubens painting worth a fortune. Jealousy of Clas’s looks, height and easy intimacy with Diana, adds spice to Roger’s resolve to steal the Rubens. Putting this plan into action he sets in train a sequence of events involving murder, betrayal, deceit and a deadly pursuit where his head is hunted in a literal not corporate sense. It also includes a means of escape so disgusting most of us would choose a nice quick clean death in preference. Think outside khazi and concealment with the aid of the ‘doo-da-doo’ from the middle of a toilet roll and you’ll get my drift. From where sufficient ‘detritus’ has accumulated to accomplish this heroic feat in a remote cabin is a mystery to match Nesbø’s main plot. But methinks I get too technical.

If one or two more central steps in the ingenious, twisty plot strain credulity just a tad, this mystery unwinds most entertainingly and keeps up a furious pace that always intrigues and never lets up. Characters are well enough drawn, especially the outwardly cynical Roger, for us to at least engage with their fate if not to really care thatmuch. It’s a good workmanlike mystery thriller tightly drawn within 100 minutes of strong, controlled direction. Its occasional gruesomesness is comfortably within the quick-look-away spectrum, all of which pales into aversion insignificance anyway compared to the escape from Coldshitz already mentioned.

Nesbø is a gift for Hollywood and I expect to see more films of his work. This augurs badly: for the one thing the entire Scandinavian artistic genre I have mentioned share is a deep trust in narrative and quality of writing; a respect for the art of story-telling. This is the lesson for Hollywood in the surprising phenomenon of Scandinavian success, for one sees more and more US movie output which reduces storylines to mere pitches and fills in the gaps with manic action or indulgent, clichéd imagery.

Hollywood has lost one of its most impressive cinematic skills: the ability to make first class, rattling good ‘B’ movies; quick, cheap and unpretentious. It is no insult to say that Headhunters is in many ways satisfyingly reminiscent of the excellent ‘B’ movies of the past.

In the end what the success of Scandinavian books and movies is telling Hollywood is what Hitchcock told them years ago: the three most important thing in a movie are the script, the script and the script. They’ve forgotten that people want stories not inflated pitches.

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