Headhunters, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Raven
Love and laughs and quite a few corpses
Headhunters is a nasty little crime thriller from Norway that keeps twisting you into a state of tense uncertainty right up to the end. The movie is admirably faithful to the unsavory Jo Nesbø novel on which it's based—a book that contains one scene that might have seemed unfilmable, although not anymore—and after slapping you around with a procession of very clever plot twists, it leaves you spent and spinning.
The story is set in Oslo, and revolves around a devious character by the unlikely name of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie). Roger is a top corporate headhunter, renowned for his ability in tracking down the very best candidates for executive positions at the companies that retain his services. In the course of these pursuits he learns everything there is to know about his prized targets—not only their professional accomplishments, but whether they own any expensive art, whether their wives work outside the home, whether they own a dog. This information is most useful in Roger's secret secondary career—as an art thief preying on the distinguished hotshots he's bagging for high-level employment.
Fundamentally insecure about his height—he's five feet, six inches tall—Roger is consumed with social status: designer clothing, top-of-the-line cars; he also has a beautiful blonde trophy wife named Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund, a Norwegian film critic making her movie debut) whom he lives in constant fear of losing. Despite his apparent prosperity, though, Roger is drowning in debt. And when Diana decides to open an art gallery—to be subsidized by her husband—he realizes he needs to steal something really valuable to keep his lifestyle going. Fortuitously, at the launch party for Diana's gallery he is introduced to the charismatic Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones). Greve is a top technology executive who has suddenly become available for a new job. Rich and handsome (and tall), he also has an interesting military background—he used to hunt down terrorists—and, best of all, he is the owner of a priceless Rubens painting.
Envisioning a future of endless solvency, Roger huddles with his accomplice in crime, a character named Ove, who works for a security firm and is able to turn off the burglar arms of the rich and famous. Ove enables Roger to break into Greve's home and make off with the painting. But things immediately start going wrong, and quickly careen out of control. Soon Roger is being hunted himself, and he slowly realizes that none of the people in his life are exactly what they seem.
The movie has passages of spectacular violence—especially a flesh-rending attack by a vicious mastiff, a bloody automotive assault, and a gruesome scene at a lake that director Morten Tyldum crowns with a startling Hitchcockian flourish. Guns roar, knives flash, bodies accumulate, and the carnage is further complicated by a dogged police inspector with—like everyone else—a personal agenda of his own. Hennie strikes just the right tones in playing Roger as a smug little weasel suddenly plunged into terror, and Coster-Waldau is charming and sinister in perfect proportions. Like the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Headhunters virtually cries out for an English-language remake. Unsurprisingly, there's already one in the works. But that's no reason to wait for it.
The Five-Year Engagement
The big-screen blend of sweet sentiment and go-for-broke raunch—a comedic combination most closely associated with Judd Apatow—comes of age in The Five-Year Engagement. The movie has all the expected jolts of inspired vulgarity, but here they don't play as simple frat-boy gags; and its narrative focus—about what happens when two people who are perfect for each other realize that perfection isn't enough—is entirely adult. It's a very funny movie with a complex heart.
Rising San Francisco chef Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) lives in unblemished contentment with his girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt), a psychology grad student who's aiming for a career in academia. She's been striking out locally, but then gets accepted for a position as a researcher at the University of Michigan. Tom, a perfect a feminist dream of a boyfriend, is happy for her and agrees to put his own promising career on hold—along with their planned wedding—and accompany her to chilly, faraway Ann Arbor. "I can cook anywhere," he says confidently.
Ann Arbor, however, turns out (rather dubiously) to be a gastronomic desert, and Tom winds up slapping together sandwiches in a delicatessen. Before long, bored out of his mind, he starts going native—slacking off with local oddballs, traipsing the woods in search of deer, growing a most unfortunate mountain-man beard. Meanwhile, Violet is being targeted by a puffed-up professor named Childs (Rhys Ifans). As Tom sinks ever deeper into uncaring lassitude, she begins to drift away, and soon Tom is heading back to San Francisco with a broken heart. Violet begins an affair with the much older Childs, and Tom, reinstalled on his home turf, becomes entangled with a much younger sex machine named Audrey (hilariously aggressive Dakota Johnson). But he and Violet still feel a deep connection: they really are perfect for one another. If only they were perfect.
Segel and Blunt have an easy and convincing chemistry. But the movie draws most of its comedic energy from the large supporting cast, especially Alison Bree, a screwball wonder as Violet's sister, Suzie, and Chris Pratt—a scene thief of effortless skill—who plays Suzie's randy boyfriend (and later husband), Alex. The script, by Segal and director Nicholas Stoller—who also collaborated on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a movie co-produced, like this one, by Apatow—mostly succeeds in rendering its raft of characters in richly quirky detail, and keeping their many interactions coherent. There are some priceless scenes (like the procession of train-wreck toasts at an engagement party), and, naturally, an abundance of tangy lines. (After offering to accompany Violet to Michigan, Tom says, "I deserve to get super-laid for this—not just weekday sex.") The story wanders occasionally—you want to pull it back on track. But right up to the preordained conclusion, it's a very lively trip.
The Raven is a movie that adds up to little more than the pitch meeting that spawned it: Edgar Allan Poe, celebrated master of the macabre, does battle with a serial killer in an atmosphere of Se7en-like depravity. This isn't a bad idea for a movie, really; but the picture that has resulted from it, directed by James McTeique (V for Vendetta), is a lumpy and uninvolving mess.
The film's conceit is that Poe, who died in Baltimore in 1849, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, spends the five days before his demise assisting police in tracking down a murderer who is staging his killings in the manner of some of the writer's most famous tales. The first of these, involving a pit and a huge, razor-edged pendulum (and a doomed literary critic strapped down beneath it), is grotesque in a vintage David Fincher way, but exceedingly farfetched: how would the murderer go about constructing such an enormous death machine without coming to someone's attention? Further improbabilities pile up as the movie lumbers along.
The picture's central weakness is its star. Casting the amiable and hearty-looking John Cusack as the dissolute Poe was an insurmountable mistake: no matter how much he raves and lurches around bars and newspaper offices, Cusack could never be mistaken for a starving artist. And his (fictitious) love affair with a wealthy local girl named Emily (a charming-to-no-avail Alice Eve) is similarly risible. (It was she for whom he wrote "Annabel Lee"!)
The movie is further encumbered by a colorless performance by Luke Evans as the detective in charge of the case, and a woeful misuse of Brendan Gleeson as Emily's endlessly blustering father. Roger Ford's production design—an exercise in grotty steampunk clutter—is admirably detailed; but for all the texture it lends the proceedings, director McTeigue never manages to pull it together into the sort of creepy atmosphere the movie would require. And the identity of the shadowy cloaked killer, when it's finally revealed, is entirely anticlimactic, for reasons I won't go into, in case anyone's planning to see this film.