"Headhunters" is a frighteningly well-made thriller about an amoral art thief on the run. It's based on Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesb's international bestseller, a cruel, clever cocktail of mayhem, macabre humor and economical storytelling. Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock said his aim was to play the audience like a piano. Director Morten Tyldum (whose 2008 World War II drama "Max Manus" smashed Norwegian box office records) goes further. His technically assured, diabolically entertaining film worked me over like a cathedral pipe organ. Awesome is too weak a word to describe it.
Roger Brown, top-level corporate recruiter by day and cat burglar by night, is a nervy little popinjay. He should be a villain, but as played by handsome, elegantly dressed Aksel Hennie (who also starred as the heroic Max Manus), he's hard to hate. He's clever, expert at both his official and illegal occupations, and candid in his occasional voice-overs. Roger admits he's driven to overcompensate for the "bad genes" that cursed him with below-average height. The trim little man's main ego prop is his long-stemmed blond wife, Diana (alluring SynnØve Macody Lund). Roger funds their extravagant life, the sterile modern home he detests, and her Oslo art gallery through his sideline as an art thief.
Roger's M.O. is precise. He interviews his wealthy clients about every detail of their lives (wife? children? dog?) and enters their homes while they're away on business. He hangs a mediocre copy (owners typically disregard what's on their walls) and uses a fence to sell the original on the black market. Roger shares detailed burglary tips that could serve as a crook's how-to manual. But after the avalanche of catastrophes that strikes when he picks the wrong mark, Roger finds himself in deep excrement. Literally.
The plot kicks into gear when Roger spies Diana making too-friendly small talk with Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from "A Game of Thrones"), a tall, virile gallery patron. Clas is a Danish special forces veteran who turned his lethal military training to use with a high-tech surveillance company, creating micro-transmitters that can pinpoint any target. When Diana lets slip that Clas' family owns a priceless Rubens earlier looted by the Nazis, Roger decides to relieve him of it while distracting him with the CEO position at a rival firm. Soon Roger is chin-deep in corpses, on the run from the ruthless Clas, and we're with him every paranoid step of the way.
The jolts click together with Swiss watch precision, but "Headhunters" never feels like a technical exercise. The frame is filled with juicy secondary characters (look for Eivind Sander as Roger's gun-nut accomplice) and attention to the details of Scandinavian life enliven every scene.
Tyldum directs the film as one long premonition of disaster. He has mastered the Coenesque trick of piling on bad luck, upping the ante of harrowing violence until the overkill becomes perversely comic. Just when you're sure things can't get worse, they get 10 times worse. Whatever you're afraid of -- pitbulls, drowning, gunfire, cliffs, poison, suffocation, disloyal lovers -- Roger suffers, in spades. "Headhunters" is deliciously excruciating. Or excruciatingly delicious.