There are two kinds of thrillers: the newfangled shaky-cam ones that tap into your fight-or-flight responses and make you sick with fear, and the Hitchcockian ones that toy with you, that give you the time and space to laugh with perverse delight at your own helplessness. The Norwegian Headhunters, from a novel by Jo Nesbø, is the second, happier kind: a droll bloodbath. It centers, as so many good thrillers do, on an orderly man whose system is both precise and precarious. His name is Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), and he’s a top-level corporate recruiter—a headhunter—who moonlights as an art thief. The reason he can’t get by on his handsome salary is complicated. He’s a fine-looking fellow with a wide, chiseled face and penetrating eyes, but he’s also five-foot-six and has, so to speak, married up. His wife, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), is a statuesque blonde who’s a full head taller in heels, and keeping her, he’s convinced, requires living way above his means. On one level, he deserves a comeuppance, not just for stealing but also for yoking his self-esteem to a beautiful woman. Yet in his thefts he attains such elegance—deftly slipping great works of art out of their frames and replacing them with forgeries, calm in the knowledge that his marks are at lunch dates that he has arranged—that you half-admire his twisted design for living. He’s the perfect thriller mascot.
The Oslo-based Nesbø, who’s often likened to Stieg Larsson on account of his being a Scandinavian genre writer and that’s all, is known for a series of enjoyable novels featuring Harry Hole, a very tall, shaven-headed, ragingly alcoholic police detective who gives strangers the impression he’s a derelict. It must have been fun for Nesbø to take a break with a book about a short, exacting thief who’s proud of his thick head of hair and strives to keep up appearances. (Forging artwork is a good metaphor for living a lie, although Nesbø never pushes it.) The film’s director, Morten Tyldum, is marvelously in tune with his material. The syncopated opening scenes are crisp and on the beat, buoyed by Roger’s mastery, his breezy way of extracting information from the wealthy men he’s interviewing for jobs about their artwork, home alarm systems, wives, dogs, etc. Tyldum’s technique is so spring-heeled that for a long while it seems as if Headhunters is going to be a caper comedy with little in the way of violence—until the first, crazy bullets fly and Roger is suddenly, vertiginously, in over his head in blood and shit. That’s not, by the way, a casual turn of phrase. Coprophobes, beware.
Headhunters is one of those madly convoluted chase movies that have you constantly asking, “What the hell is going on?” while at the same time feeling certain, for no rational reason, that it will all make sense when the wind stops blowing north-northwest and you can once more tell a hawk from a handsaw. Who’s the hawk? It might be a sleek, powerful Dutchman named Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an ex-soldier and former head of a company specializing in high-tech surveillance equipment. First seen chatting up Diana in her art gallery, Greve is a terrific candidate for a CEO position that Roger is trying to fill. More important, he claims to have discovered in the home of his dead grandmother a Rubens that went lost after the Nazis’ defeat. Hearing of the Rubens, Roger looks at least three inches taller. The compact Hennie is a wonderful actor, smoothly congenial when confident, uproarious when rattled. And he will be rattled—as well as stabbed, shorn, bitten, mangled, and worse.
Director Tyldum winds his jack-in-the-boxes in full view, and still you jump when they’re sprung. What’s with Roger’s clingy mistress (Julie Ølgaard), who grabs hold of his hair and won’t let go? How about Roger’s accomplice, Ove (Eivind Sander), a jolly paranoiac who stashes all manner of guns around his cabin along with a hidden camera to capture his trysts with his beloved, a Russian prostitute? Is that Rubens a MacGuffin or a red herring? Or is it a red herring smeared atop a toasted MacGuffin? Grisly thrillers don’t get much more delectable.
In the blandly made but intense science-fiction psychodrama Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling plays Maggie, a cult leader who might or might not have traveled back from 2054 and a world in the throes of civil war. In the first sequence, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a pair of undercover documentary filmmakers posing as new recruits, are told to strip and shower and then driven, blindfolded, their hands bound, to a tacky suburban basement, where they must execute a childishly elaborate handshake before the entrance—barefoot, an oxygen tank rolling behind her—of the alleged time traveler. Maggie speaks to her circle in soothing, deliberate tones about her arrival in our time, her memories of her own, and the need for her followers to shed their defenses and commit themselves to her. Later, she directs them to expel their old poisons, and they vomit on cue—all except Peter, who can’t let go until Maggie probes him, eliciting halting admissions of abuse, until he finally adds his puke to the sum of all puke. It’s hard to tell how far Peter and Lorna are being pulled in—they don’t know themselves and argue fiercely. They’re each part in and part out, but their parts are never in sync.
Marling wrote Sound of My Voice with director Zal Batmanglij, and here, as in Another Earth, the sci-fi is the hook but the focus is on humans thrown out of their solipsistic orbits by a glimpse of something larger. Batmanglij keeps the movie even-keeled, full of medium close-ups, underscored by ambient plinks and shimmers, with nothing to break the trance until a last scene that upends everything we thought we knew. The sudden finish is a slap-in-the-face but not a cheat.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Marling was a cult member herself—she has that vibe. Her glassy demeanor recalls Julia Roberts’s, but Roberts’s mask is a lid to contain her (prodigious) neuroses, whereas Marling’s helps her dole out her secrets selectively. She’s sly, this one. It’s hard to tell where she’s heading, but I have a feeling I’m going with her.