London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 4

After a cracking day of documentary it’s back to planet fiction, starting with the Scandinavian thriller Headhunters.

Once thought of as an enlightened, peaceful part of Europe, Scandinavia has become something of a hotbed of nastiness  in recent years if the glut of grisly crime fiction is anything to go by.

Steig Larsson’s best-selling Millennium trilogy has already been adapted for film once and is getting the Hollywood remake treatment courtesy of David Fincher for those who struggle/can’t be bothered to read subtitles on screen. Danish series The Killing was a massive hit for the BBC (an American TV adaptation soon followed), which also had a stab at the Kurt Wallander series of books (hot on the heels of the Swedish TV series).

Headhunters

Now it’s the turn of award-winning Norwegian author Jo Nesbo to have his work brought to the screen. Famous for his Harry Hole detective novels and Doctor Proktor children’s series, it’s actually his 2008 stand-alone book Hodejegerne (The Headhunters) which director Morten Tyldum has brought to the screen.

While The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were filmed in a very muted, televisual way, with no visual flourishes, Headhunters immediately feels like something different; sexier, fresher and with a cool and glossy visual style that fits the character of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie).

One of Norway’s most successful headhunters, reputation means everything to Roger, whether it’s earned or manufactured. Away from work, Roger lives in a beautiful house with beautiful trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). He seems to have it all, but in reality he’s hopelessly in debt and has turned to art theft to keep the wolves from the door.

When Diana introduces him to the charismatic Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from American TV series Game of Thrones), Roger sniffs not one, but two opportunities; to headhunt Clas for a high-flying position he needs filling, but also to solve his financial woes once and for all. For Clas is in possession of an extremely valuable painting and so Roger sets into motion with his partner in crime, security firm employee Ove (Eivind Sander) a plan to swipe the artwork and sell it on.

But the best laid plans of Roger and Ove go horribly, horribly wrong and soon Roger is running for his life and in the middle of an industrial conspiracy he can barely understand.

Headhunters is an intriguing recipe of styles; with a smattering of The Thomas Crown Affair here and a dash of Enemy of the State there before turning into what it ultimately is – a rollicking good roller-coaster ride with more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller.

Unlike The Girl With… films, Headhunters also knows when to poke fun at itself and the humorous vignettes, most absurdly when Roger drives down the road in a tractor with a domestic animal stuck on the end of it, manage to sit comfortably with the moments of intense violence because they are so blackly comic.

Sometimes Headhunters can be too clever for its own good and it’s hard not to turn your nose up at some of the more unlikely plot twists (the moment when Roger makes a phone call to his wife only to get a rude awakening feels like exactly what it is, a necessary moment to move us into Act Two), but it’s equally difficult not to get swept along by the film’s kinetic energy. If this doesn’t get remade in America as well I’ll cut off my own head.

Just as the struggle to return to a normal life after the Vietnam War was addressed in films such as Coming Home (1978) and The Deerhunter (1978), so the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have seen their fair share, with the likes of In the Valley of Ellah (2007), Stop Loss (2008) and, to a lesser extent, The Hurt Locker (2008).

It’s virtually impossible to avoid politics in films such as these, but that’s what Liza Johnson tries to do in her debut feature Return.

Return

Not one mention is made of George W Bush and no-one beats their chest questioning the reason as to why our boys and girls are over there. As the title suggests, Johnson instead focuses solely on how Kelli (Linda Cardellini) copes with civvie life, beginning with the moment she is reunited with her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and their two daughters in the airport after a year’s tour of duty (it’s not specified where, reinforcing it’s irrelevancy in Johnson’s eyes).

The community is delighted to have Kelli back, and following a welcome home party she returns to work at the local factory, seemingly well-adjusted and unaffected by her year away. Gentle questioning by her friends as to what is was like over there prompts the broken-record reply of “others had it much worse than me”, a mantra that becomes increasingly meaningless the more she says it.

It’s only a matter of time though before her outwardly happy exterior begins to crack and the alienation, confusion and sense of purposelessness starts seeping out. First she walks out on her job, then her marriage begins to fall apart as she discovers Mike has been seeing another woman in her absence, before a moment’s stupidity leads to her getting caught drink-driving. And when she receives a piece of devastating news, she’s left with stark choices as to where to go next.

Johnson directs with a suitably stripped down palette, a wise move bearing in mind the often painful subject matter. She’s assembled a sturdy cast, with Shannon more restrained than he’s been on screen before and Tony Slattery swapping the fine tailoring of Mad Men for a sweatshirt and battered old baseball cap as a fellow war vet and damaged soul.

However, this is former ER cast member Cardellini’s film and she doesn’t drop the ball in what is her biggest role to date. There are no histrionics, instead she reigns it in, only allowing her eyes to show the anguish and confusion Kelli is going through.

That being said, Johnson’s script can feel very clunky at times, throwing in narrative jumps that aren’t properly explained or believably handled (the breakdown of Kelli and Mike’s marriage happens very quickly, especially as he seems so keen to go back to the way things were before). Mike’s being a plumber also feels a little heavy-handed (he can fix everything except her).

The fact that it’s a woman returning from a tour is refreshing – the only other film dealing with this subject from a female perspective that comes to mind is the British indie In Our Name (2010) – but it’s not enough to give Return an honourable discharge.

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