A high point of nerve-wracked Norwegian thriller Headhunters finds its protagonist, a corporate recruiting agent named Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), desperately navigating a rain-slicked road on the rural outskirts of Oslo. He's behind the wheel of a tractor with a pitbull impaled on its forks, clad in nothing but underwear and human excrement. He looks a lot like Walter White in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, stripped to his briefs and wearing a gas mask, steering his rolling meth lab in a panic through the New Mexico desert.
Roger and Walt are similar characters—prideful men plagued by deep insecurity—but at least Walt can blame his poor decisions on cancer. All Roger's actions are driven by an obsession with reputation (and a raging Napoleon complex). By the time of his naked tractor ride, his own reputation has quite literally gone to shit. There are plenty more body fluids for it to get splattered with.
Adapted from a book by Jo Nesbo, Morten Tyldum's Headhunters initially portrays itself as something much less unsavory. Its opening moments tease a sleek heist picture: Roger's secondary occupation is art theft, and the film begins with a primer on the rules of that particular game. For its first half, the movie is set among an ultra-modernist landscape of boxy glass houses, art galleries and office buildings. Then Roger discovers his partner's lifeless body in his garage, and the film turns, on a dime, into a blood-stained, shit-caked, bruised-black comedy of mounting indignities resembling Martin Scorsese's After Hours.
It is best not to give much thought to the plot's convoluted zigzags. As labyrinthine suspense films of its kind often do, Headhunters makes the mistake of eventually explaining itself aloud and sounding overly proud of the Rube Goldberg contraption it has put together. Those machinations are not worth boasting about. Hennie's performance as Roger, however, truly impresses. He suffers his way to redemption, all the while looking like a member of the Cardigans with Steve Buscemi's eyes Photoshopped onto his face. Bitten, stabbed, sprayed with bullets and rammed off a cliff by a semi-truck while pinned between a pair of overweight cops in the back of a police car, he crawls from the wreckage of his life not exactly a changed man, but a man who's finally earned the respect he's always assumed he deserved. Hennie transforms him into the rarest of heroes: the douchebag worth rooting for.
SEE IT: Headhunters opens Friday at Cinema 21.