Two terrific Scandinavian films

I have been fascinated by the rise of contemporary Scandinavian filmmaking, mostly coming from Norway and Denmark.  Sweden, of course, has Ingmar Bergman to crow about–certainly one of the most important filmmakers of the twentieth century. And of course Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier are internationally famous. But in addition to those giants, Denmark and Norway have both provided funding for a whole string of terrific young directors, and in the last five years, we’ve seen some genuinely brilliant work.

This week, I want to talk about two such films, one Danish and one Norwegian, both about the world of big business, and the world of high crime, and similarities between them. Neither film is exactly ground-breaking stylistically, but they’re highly sophisticated films, reflecting larger movements in contemporary filmmaking.

The Norwegian film Headhunters (Hodejagerne) is the third feature film by director Morten Tyldum; his two previous films were a thriller and a rom-com.  It stars Aksel Hennie, who played the heroic Norwegian freedom fighter Max Manus in the film by that same title.  In this film, Hennie plays Roger Brown, a corporate headhunter.  That is, he’s a guy who consults with big multi-nationals looking for a CEO, and also the guy who grooms smaller company presidents looking to move up in the corporate world.  He’s happily married to Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), their marriage only slightly marred by the fact that’s she’s half a foot taller than he is (which he insists only slightly bothers him), and also by his lifestyle, which outstrips his salary by a considerable sum.  To make up the financial difference, he’s a successful high-end art thief.  And the two jobs are related–when interviewing potential CEO’s, he’s casually casing their homes.

It starts to fall apart when he chooses the wrong target.  A particularly ruthless businessman, Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is up for a highly desirable CEO position, and also owns, it appears, a Rembrandt.  It turns out Greve is just setting him up, and is also even more ruthless than Roger ever imagined.  Hence the plot, in which an increasingly desperate (but just-clever enough) Roger barely escapes from trap after trap.

The film is very Coen Brothers–reminds me a great deal of Fargo or others of the Coens’ caper films.  Greve’s trying to kill Roger, and has no qualms about taking out various policemen along the way–Roger, meanwhile, is forced to hide out in various unpleasant places.  An outhouse, for one.  And guess where?  In what part of the outhouse?  Yep.

I found the ending a trifle disappointing, but I may have misread it. I found it a bit sentimental, and thought it tonally off, at odds with the absurdist violence of the rest of the film.  And unearned–Roger’s the hero of the film, but he’s hardly a good guy–moralistically speaking, he doesn’t deserve a happy ending.  But maybe that’s intentional, maybe it’s some kind of meta-cinematic comment about compulsory narrative closure, obligatory poetic justice.  Meanwhile, the film’s amazing, even very funny in a ‘ewwwww’ sort of way.  Put it this way; do you like FargoBarton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple?  If so, check out Headhunters.

The second film I want to talk about is A Hijacking (Kapringen), the second feature from writer/director Tobias Lindholm.  His first film, R, is a sensational naturalist prison drama–in this film, the focus is the corporate boardroom, every big as feral and dangerous.

I haven’t seen Captain Phillips yet, and now, after seeing A Hijacking, I’m not sure I want to.  It’s hard to imagine a better film about a boat hijacked by Somali pirates.  The MV Rozen, a Danish cargo ship, is close to port when it’s boarded.  We don’t see the boarding, and for the first half of the film, we hardly know the pirates at all.  The focus is on the corporate headquarters of Rozen’s owners, and CEO Peter Ludwigsen (Søren Malling), who is negotiating its release.  And then cut back to the ship, and especially the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), the one crew member who gets to move around a bit, because he has to provide food for crew and pirates alike.

As the film progresses, we also meet Omar (Abdihaken Asgar), who negotiates for the pirates, but claims not to be one. So as Peter claims to have to clear any cash payment with his board, Omar claims to answer to the pirates, and of course both sides see the other sides’ offers insultingly low.

Peter is one of those ‘rather be feared than loved’ sorts of bosses, buttoned-down, but plenty ruthless.  Omar, meanwhile, can go from genial to ferocious immediately, as needed, tactically.  And poor Mikkel just wants to get home to his wife and daughter.  The whole film manages to balance incredible dramatic tension with an almost off-handed super-realism.  And the negotiations drag on, and on.  We never sense that Peter is indifferent to the welfare of his threatened employees–he fully intends to do what he can to bring them home safely.  But he’s also not about to pay top dollar for their release, not least because his board really won’t let him.  And so the negotiations drag on. For months.  And Mikkel’s pantry empties, and the ship’s drinking water is nearly gone.  By the end of the film, the constant tension under which Mikkel labors has driven him nearly catatonic.

I won’t give away the ending, except to say that things do sort of work out, but not without terrible consequences.  But the film itself honors the ultra-naturalist tradition, found in this country by the films of Kelly Reichardt and Derek Cianfrance and the Duplass brothers and so many others.  It’s the starkest, most compelling film I’ve seen in months.

So anyway.  Two great films, by two young and gifted Scandinavian filmmakers.  Check ’em out.


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