Friday, June 1, 2012

Headhunters and Polisse

        Desperate Times in the Eurozone
                             Review by Ken Burke          Headhunters
A fascinating Norwegian film about an upper-class art thief whose crimes support his wife’s demanding expectations; marvelous but not for the faint of heart.
A French film about the cops who try to protect abused kids shows that the abuse also rubs off on the adults as they try to navigate their frustrations with endless crime.
            OK, so once you get into to this you’ll realize that I’m lying—somewhat—because Norway’s not in the Eurozone and this review has nothing to do with the current economic crisis brewing across the Atlantic, but you’ve got to admit that it’s a catchy title and, anyway, lying is quite appropriate when discussing our first film, Norwegian Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters (Hodejegerne, 2011).  And it’s not just lying; this film also delivers deception, theft, murder … plus subtitles.  What else could you want?  Well, what our protagonist, Roger Brown (How’s that for an unlikely Norwegian name? But he's played marvelously in both crafty criminal and desperate prey mode by Aksel Hennie.), wants is money, a steady stream of it to support the lavish lifestyle that he’s fashioned for himself and wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund).  You’d think that he’s comfortably in the Scandinavian 1% already with his successful career as a corporate headhunter, but to maintain the material world that he’s created to appeal to Diana’s tastes he’s constantly—but unbeknownst to her—on the verge of bankruptcy.  Thus, he’s fashioned a parallel life as an art thief, stealing precious works right off the walls of clients while they’re away at the interviews that Roger has scheduled for them.  This is where Diana’s career as a gallery owner comes in handy because it keeps Roger up on what will be useful black-market deals and gives him connections to skillful reproductions so that he can carefully substitute lookalikes in the original frames leaving the rightful owners completely unaware of the hoax.  And how does he even get into to their dwellings, you may ask?  Again our master plotter has the perfect accomplice (but this one’s in on the swindles) in Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander), who works for the seemingly ubiquitous security company conveniently guarding everyone’s belongings so he just shuts off the alarm when Roger needs entry.  Clearly, this guy’s got everything under control—except his 5’ 6” height which drives his underlying inferiority complex that keeps him racing ahead of Diana’s desires lest she leave him for greener, taller pastures to match her own striking stature.

            Competition for Diana arrives anyway in the imposing form of Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the young but retired CEO of neighboring Copenhagen’s HOTE Corp., who’s recruited by Roger for another top job at Norway’s Pathfinder Corp. but finds a path to Diana, which Roger discovers accidently while stealing a valuable Rubens painting from Clas’ almost-deserted Danish apartment (where the only piece of furniture left seems to be the bed where Roger finds Diana’s cell phone when attempting to call her from the scene of his latest crime).  From there things unravel quickly for Roger whose mysterious vow to Diana (he doesn’t acknowledge the affair but just acts suddenly sullen toward her) that Clas will never find work in Norway results in unleashing the fury of his antagonist, an extremely dangerous situation because Clas has special-ops military training along with expertise in surveillance and tracking.  Before Roger barely knows what’s starting to hit him he finds Ove dead in Roger’s car, still in the closed garage, and the hunt is on for our now-terrified art thief in a masterful suspense tale that conjures up the best of Hitchcock films (for well constructed plots and success with linking the audience to the same tensions felt by the characters), Joel and Ethan Coen’s (although Ethan is uncredited on the original film) 1996 Fargo (both for the use of expected, shocking events and the link between Fargo’s setting in the land of U.S. Scandinavian immigrants and their distant European relations in Headhunters), and the perils of Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (appropriate, given that, like his Swedish counterpart who was constantly on the run while needing to use a trove of survival skills, Roger also begins life in an internationally-known novel, a Norwegian one written by Jo Nesbø)Headhunters quickly becomes a thrill-a-second experience, masterfully structured so that you never know what to expect next nor whom to trust nor even what to believe that you’re seeing on screen.

            Among the first of many surprises is that Ove isn’t dead (yet), which Roger discovers when trying to dump his body into a lake, but the poison from a tiny dart left in the car for Roger to sit on is still causing physical anguish so when Roger takes him back to Ove’s apartment things get even crazier quickly as Ove pulls a gun (one of many around his lodging; he’s clearly a guy who fancies guns as needed protection but also as a source of sexual stimulation, as we see in one scene where he and his Russian prostitute girlfriend enjoy shooting in each other’s general vicinity while running around nude—Iike I implied early on, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill thriller), demanding to be taken to an emergency room.  In attempting to defend himself, Roger grabs another weapon, accidently kills Ove, then takes Ove’s clothes (throwing his own into the lake; at least something got properly disposed of in this film) and car, drives to a country cabin where he hopes to hole up, but finds that Clas is hot on his trail.  From this point things go decidedly downhill for Roger, especially in a scene that involves hiding beneath the surface in a well-used outhouse (Get the picture?  If not, let me refer you to a couple of other “pictures” with similar sewage moments: Trainspotting [1996] and Slumdog Millionaire [2008], in which Danny Boyle showed us the less-than-finer side of life.  Tlydum goes him one better by forcing Roger to wallow beneath the residue until Clas moves on—at least he didn’t add a “movement” of his own to contribute further to Roger’s predicament.).  Roger must also defend himself from Clas’ marauding dog, then temporarily escape this countryside chaos on a tractor, but there are worse punishments awaiting involving assault by 18-wheeler as you can see in the trailer clips noted below.

            However, all of Roger’s previous travails just deepen the difficulty of his situation as he turns first for help to his own mistress, Lotte (Julie Ølgaard—Again I ask, how did someone with a name like Roger Brown wander into this Scandinavian cast of characters and actors?), but she turns out to be merely a strategy that Clas was using to get to Roger—as was Diana—because Clas has his own problems with his Danish company (turns out he’s not retired after all) and needed encouragement for Roger to steer him to the Norwegian job as an opportunity to bail himself out.  Once again, treachery escalates, weapons swirl around, then Lotte bites the dust, leaving Roger with only one hope—Diana—assuming she can be trusted not to betray him again, or maybe he’ll have to find some way to go it alone with no allies; I’m going to leave that for you to discover in hopes that your curiosity will compel you to locate and see this film.  You may think that I’ve already given away far too much about how this compelling narrative twists and turns your expectations and your stomach (but here’s my periodic reminder about ongoing spoiler alerts that are the nature of these retrospective reviews, as noted on our opening ABOUT THE BLOG page); however, even if you think I’ve ruined your chances to properly see and appreciate Headhunters (in retrospect, a marvelous pun of a title, given how there are more vicious crimes being committed here than are common even in the fierce world of corporate manipulations) in the near future on DVD (sadly, you won’t have many chances in theatres, except for those of you in large metropolitan areas and even there you’d better move quickly), I can assure you that there are still important, unanticipated zigzags to come before it’s all over so I’ll just leave it at that, also leaving you with a wholehearted recommendation to find this film however you can and indulge yourself in it along with a hearty dinner of vodka and lutefisk (go easy on the lye, though).  Actually, I’d advise seeing the film first; after you encounter the lutefisk you may not be able to concentrate on anything else until your body recuperates.

            Moving more accurately into the Eurozone, to France specifically, we’ll find a squad of police detectives in Maïwenn (Le Besco)'s Polisse (2011) not always able to concentrate on their work because: (a) it’s so intensely demanding as they try to protect the children of Paris from various kidnappers and deviants, including, more often than not, the kids’ own families or other trusted adults such as teachers, and (b) these cops seem to spend virtually all of their waking hours with each other (including relationships where they shouldn’t be getting so close with various others in their squad) so that even if the job doesn’t create tension this particular minute one of their comrades will, just because they never get a break from their constant interpersonal interactions.  You’d find that “reputation” is a key word in my undisclosed finale of Headhunters, related to a Norwegian cop who’s trying to resolve the sordid circumstances generated by Roger and Clas, just as “reputation” is a key concern for the Child Protective Unit police in Polisse (spelled the way the kids often mistakenly do it), but in this film it’s not so much about personal pride in making sense of a messy mystery as it is protective pride that every heinous act against a child that is prosecuted gives hope that the next twisted perp will reconsider and not harm the innocent and defenseless among us.

            Polisse is a dense but active narrative because there are many characters in the squad, none of whom are treated as the primary protagonist so we learn a lot about several of them and the tense, intertwined lives that they lead.  It’s no surprise that this was the Jury Award winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival because it’s a very compelling story of the struggles these dedicated custodians of the city’s children must face on a daily basis, never knowing how to prevent something that’s usually already occurred as well as never knowing for sure whom to believe as scared kids are hesitant to accuse a family member of wrongdoing or maybe they’re just impressionable tots who have allowed their imaginations to induce incidents that are more from TV than reality; similarly, they face a Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982 [and again, and again, for the various director’s cuts])-level task of telling truth from deception where the adults’ testimonies are concerned or at times the problem is getting responsible adults to act responsibly and appreciate the fragile nature of their offspring rather than seeing them as property to be handled in any manner deemed appropriate to an older, larger, authoritative human being—although intra-family tensions between adults also come into play as when a wife tries desperately not to incriminate her husband even as she struggles to gain protection from him for her daughter.  Life’s never easy for the guys and gals behind these badges, given the daunting responsibility that they oversee in their huge urban jurisdiction.

            The squad is overseen a bit also by a photographer, Melissa (played by the director), hired to document their activities, which is quite appropriate for the documentary-like feel of the film which constantly moves at a fast pace intercutting from scene to scene, location to location, mini-story arc to mini-story arc, providing a sense of Photographic Realism’s seeming spontaneity (like a grim and purposeful version of Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker) that is mitigated only by the larger reality that the omnipresent public-events camera wouldn’t also be available to record the personal lives of all of these pressure-cooked cops when they finally get a few moments away from their constant group work (although this conceit can seem to appear as total recorded "reality" if the filmmakers just plunge into it and don’t question how whatever footage needs to be shown in a faux documentary structure just happens to always be available, as with Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives [1992] where the on-screen interviews are constantly supplemented with private interactions that couldn’t have been shot by the in-film doc crew, even though it’s all intercut as if being assembled by someone other than Allen).  One such personal interaction ripe for conflict is the attraction obviously felt by one of the cops, Fred (Joeystarr), toward Melissa despite both of them being already married and her with kids of her own, although his marriage clearly isn’t very strong and hers is already functioning as an acceptable separation from her family so at least the way becomes clear for a new alliance without nearly the trauma that comes from the actual workplace tensions between two of the women, Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Foïs), who frequently fight over Iris’ attempts at micromanagement of Nadine’s life which finally pushes Nadine a bit beyond the breaking point.  Iris has her own breaking point later in the story, but as with Headhunters I won’t go that far this time, in hopes that you make the effort to find and see this unrelenting but ultimately rewarding film.

           The concept of “reputation” does enter into this form of police work in another manner at one point, though, in terms of how a few of our beleaguered cops risk theirs by letting down their usual gruff guard when a teenage girl admits that she performed fellatio on some boys so that her girlfriend would return her cell phone (that's not what's pictured in this photo, but I couldn't find one of that specific scene).  When they try to impress upon her the lack of personal dignity that such an act indicates she says “It was an iPhone!”; the cops just can’t contain their hysterical laughter, finally allowing themselves to increase the humor of the situation by asking her what she’d do if it were a laptop (or something like that; I was laughing too hard at the situation to be able to take very precise notes).  They know they’re out of line, and often on thin ice with their stern, rule-bound supervisor, but at this point they just can’t control themselves as their infectious guffaws provide relief for them and us both (the girl is a bit perplexed by the whole thing, although more likely about why they’d even need to ask her what she’d do to protect her social network lifeline than being angry at them for their unprofessional responses).  This is a rare moment of levity in a very dark film, though, where the horrific abuses don’t have to be graphically shown to be understood; the atrocities resonate from the physical and emotional scars that remain in the withdrawn faces and bodies of the abused kids and the hostile actions of those teens who are instigating their own violence on their peers or on themselves as a result of the lives they’re stuck with (including a birth scene so tragic that I just can’t reveal more, in hopes that you do see it for yourselves), existences that seem to have emerged from the depths of the crapper that Headhunters’ Roger had to hide in.  One child regains some dignity and self-acceptance at the end of Polisse, but the other event his gymnastics triumph is intercut with shows us how easily lives will be ruined in this never-ending assault on those who are driven to excess by the thoughtless excesses of others.  Polisse forces us to wallow in the shit of human unkindness and the non-generosity of strangers (even when the kid thinks he or she knows the assailant, as with their own parents), and you’ll probably feel the need for an emotional/spiritual bath of some kind after you see it, but it’s done so well as to justify what it puts you through just to see that one boy finding himself again at the end, despite the previous horrors he endured.  Not everyone else survives so well in Polisse, but if watching the film feels a little like walking on hot coals at least your feet feel a bit better connected to the Earth when the journey of the story is complete, with our souls a little tougher as well, slowly strengthened like the cops through the challenges they must endure as the next section of hot coals pops up around the corner.
            If you’re interested in knowing more about Headhunters here are some suggested links:

            If you’re interested in knowing more about Polisse here are some suggested links: (this is one of those sites that supposedly lets you watch the whole film for free; just click on the link below the video)

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

No comments:

Post a Comment