How does a filmmaker bridge the gap between thriller and comedy?
Maybe by taking some cues from Morten Tyldum, director of the Norwegian film "Head-hunters."
When the movie's protagonist, Roger Brown, finds himself covered in human feces and evading a bloodthirsty assassin on a slow-moving tractor with a pit bull as a hood ornament, suspense gives way to sight gag (with an emphasis on gag).
And the results are unexpectedly hilarious.
The levity is a welcome surprise given that novelist Jo Nesbø, whose book serves as source material, is often heralded as the heir to Stieg Larsson's Scandinavian crime-writing crown. Yet "Headhunters" has less in common with the somber, brooding tone of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" than the cheeky black comedy "In Bruges."
Roger, brilliantly portrayed by Aksel Hennie, is a human resources headhunter with a dangerous hobby art theft. As Roger explains in the opening scenes, this pastime is a necessary means to procure loads of money to compensate for his diminutive stature and looks that might be described as Ron Weasley by way of Wall Street.
Cash camouflages shortcomings. Just look at his supermodel-worthy wife for reference.
Roger is not an especially likable character. He has a wandering eye, casually breaks laws and makes smug, outlandish comments to the audience in voice-over. Yet, when he finds himself in a prickly predicament after stealing a Rubens from a special-forces-caliber killer twice his size, it's difficult not to cheer for the underdog.
With all that hubris, he deserves the comeuppance. But part of the character's ultimate likability stems from the fact that Roger isn't nearly as slick as he thinks he is.
In one scene, for example, the protagonist tries to deposit a dead body in a lake but ends up pinned to the ground, wrestling with the unwieldy corpse. He also makes some forehead- slapping decisions while running from the Van Damme-esque Clas Greve (played with ideal wolfishness by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of "Game of Thrones").
Although the movie is indeed suspenseful, not to mention gruesome at times, these little touches together with Hennie's comic timing go a long way toward lightening the mood. Add in playful music and clever camerawork, and the result is a cat-and-mouse game with the giddy excitement of a heist film.
Not only does the humor alleviate the impact of the violence, but it also lifts up the proceedings when things take a turn for the dramatic during the denouement.
Early in the film, Roger tells a man in search of a new job that "It's all a game." That seems to be the message of the film, too.
In that way, the biggest similarity between "Headhunters" and the Millennium trilogy might be how quickly an English-language adaptation unnecessarily follows the Scandinavian version (one is reportedly in the works).
But there's no need to wait for that. The fun begins now.
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Rated R (Contains graphic images of violence, nudity and sex)
In Norwegian with English subtitles