Thursday, August 30, 2012

Double Review: Headhunters / Jackpot

A Tale of Two Nesbøs

I've pretty much ignored this whole 'Scandicrime' phase (I've also never read a Dan Brown book, a fact that I state with great pride). Sure, I read the Stieg Larsson trilogy, even if the first was the only one of any real note. But I feel confident that I'm not missing a whole lot ignoring the vast amount of Scandinavian airport novels suddenly popping up around the place. Some may be good, some may even be very good: but, with such a rich world of literature out there, disposable crime novels alas rarely make the cut.

Hence I have a very limited knowledge of Mr. Jo Nesbø who, unfortunately, has been straddled with the potentially crippling 'next Stieg Larsson' tag by many eager readers, critics and publishing houses alike. Indeed, I confess such a cheap marketing quote was enough to turn me off his work until now. But after hearing several positive reviews for the adaptation of his novel Headhunters, I said I'd give the cinematic cliffnotes a whirl. Having been generally impressed, I decided to check out current cinema release Jackpot too (based on a story by Nesbø). Bad idea.

Let us take a step back for a moment. Brief plot introductions are due. Headhunters concerns a one Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie): a professional headhunter (as the title helpfully suggests) who steals valuable art pieces from the homes of clients to help fund a moderately lavish lifestyle for himself and his gallery opening wife. However, the shit makes a rapid turn towards the fan when Roger tries to lift a priceless painting from mysterious new client Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Jackpot, meanwhile, stars Kyrre Hellum as Oscar: a supervisor in a recycling plant / fake Christmas tree factory that employs a ragtag collection of outcasts and ex-cons. When himself and three employees enter a betting pool for the national lottery (which seems to be determined by soccer results - the intricacies of Northern European gambling are lost on me) they unexpectedly win well over a million pieces of finest Norwegian currency. Alas, some of the group want a bigger share, with inevitably bloody results. Indeed, the film opens with poor Oscar emerging from underneath an obese corpse just as the police arrive at the site of a strip club massacre, with a majority of the film taking the form of Oscar's subsequent interrogation.

Headhunters first: while it will never be mistaken for anything more than light, somewhat daft entertainment, it succeeds surprisingly well within its limited scope. The film is extremely pacy, propelled along with admirably energetic momentum. The characters are all unlikeable gits (even Roger himself), but the filmmakers and writer are clever enough to put them through darkly comic misfortune for the duration (although arguably peaking with a literal dip in shit). The biggest problem - and this foreshadows a fatal flaw with the much inferior Jackpot - is a handful of unconvincing contrivances and absurdities, especially during an overly neat conclusion. But, for the majority of the running time, you won't care given the brutal force of the rest of the film. This is silly stuff, but it's endearingly so. The brisk 100 minute running time absolutely flies by as twists pile upon twists and the body count grows. And luckily the film rarely misses an opportunity to indulge in some dark comedy - there's something horribly amusing about a shit-covered man riding a tractor with a dead dog impaled on the front.

Jackpot is similarly lean, but unfortunately at barely 90 minutes feels wholly overstretched. There are plenty of similarities with its sibling (same author, different directors, FYI): deplorable characters, darkly comic tone, high body count. Alas, here it just doesn't work. The plot is contrived beyond all reasonableness, and asks the audience to forgive far too many gaps in logic or story. Try as it might, the pace isn't as convincingly frantic and the story is overfamiliar. There are hints throughout that Oscar's storytelling may not be entirely trustworthy, alá Rashomon. While this strand comes to fruition in the final act, it's far too little far too late, and is significantly undermined by a far too cozy conclusion that makes Headhunter's also neat ending seem comparatively complex and believable. The direction on the whole is merely perfunctory, which is a shame after a relatively stylish opening. Still, the shot of bloody Christmas trees is a rare moment worthy of a chuckle.

One author, two adaptations, two very different results. Headhunters is a light thriller in the best sense: action packed, intense and with a generally interesting story. Jackpot, meanwhile, proves that some stories are best left in the airport book shop: an ugly, sleazy and stupid film, much like the characters it conjures up. If you must only watch one Jo Nesbø this year, let it be Headhunters: it ain't no masterpiece, but it is thoroughly Scandinavian fun.  

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