This week’s Brief Reviews, I’ve lined up three films with a criminal theme.
Easily the film with the highest production value and sharpest cinematography, Headhunters is a surprisingly unsatisfying experience. Based on bestselling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s crime fiction, Headhunters tells the tale of an art thief who makes the misstep of stealing a painting from a former special forces soldier who specialized in tracking people. A great setup which the film executes as if the producers of CSI made their own version of No Country for Old Men. Perhaps it is telling that director Morten Tyldum spent the majority of his career heading a Norwegian TV series.
It’s too bad because the film has a lot of assets it wastes. The actors are all game. I’ve never seen Aksel Hennie, who plays the thief, before but his performance was strong enough that I will seek out his other films. He’s kind of one part Steve Buscemi and one part Tim Roth; a captivating combination. Cast as the former special forces soldier is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Game of Thrones fans will recognize him as Jaime Lannister. This role doesn’t ask much of him as an actor outside of being slick and menacing. And we already know he can do that. Caught in the middle of their game of cat-and-mouse is the thief’s wife played by Synnøve Macody Lund. At first it seemed like her role would solely be as trophy wife but she is given one of the best scenes. In the scene when Hennie’s thief character essentially attempts to buy off his wife, she asks him what kind of person he thinks she is. The timing of the question and the electricity of the scene is excellent.
A comparison to the Coen brothers is apt. I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like in their hands with this cast. While Tyldum can put together some interesting set pieces, including one involving a semi-truck, he doesn’t display the sense of vision the Coen’s do. Taken as a whole, including a completely unnecessary and literal dip into an outhouse, the film is an absurd mess.
The Killer Inside Me
It’s no secret that Casey Affleck is the only Affleck who can act. His performances in Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford were both excellent. It was the buzz about his performance that drew me to this film. Affleck’s is indeed excellent. He transitions from a friendly Barney Fife type aw-shucks deputy, to manipulatively patronizing, to full blown psychopath with astonishing smoothness. But despite Affleck’s performance there is not much to like.
Director Michael Winterbottom (24hr Party People, A Mighty Heart) decides to linger on two extremely brutal misogynistic scenes for no discernible reason. Now it is true that author Jim Thompson, who wrote the book the film is based on, was a misogynist. But the balance of violence Winterbottom puts on display is way off. While there is plenty of violence toward the male characters of the film, it is brief or transmitted with cutaways. For the violence against the women in the film the camera lingers and leers. Perhaps leering is Winterbottom’s point. If it is, it is misguided.
Aside from Affleck, no one else is given a moment to shine. The film is sloppily episodic. The whole film looks like it was shot on a backlot with a soap opera budget instead of the badlands of small town Texas. When you have such an evil main character and a rudimentary yet ugly script, you have to give the audience a reason to stick around. Winterbottom fails to provide any depth to his canvas worth lingering for.
End of Watch
Easily my favorite film of these three. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña’s chemistry makes the film. I could’ve watched them banter all day. Directed by David Ayer, who has made a career of gritty yet cartoonish cop films like Training Day, the film follows two LAPD officers on patrol in precinct 13 nicknamed “Shootin’ Newton”.
I’m not sure how much of what’s displayed in the daily routine is real. But it certainly feels real (as I’m writing this I went over to the LAPD news page and there is a laundry list of murders and missing persons). What Ayer does well is capture the rhythm of the dialogue both within the department and on the street. The rhythm feels authentic. It’s not the quotable no-one-talks-like-that lines of Tarantino. Rather the dialogue is something you’d hear on HBO’s The Wire.
Borrowing from The Godfather, Ayer smartly lets you into the officer’s daily lives outside the force. Gyllenhall and Peña display a natural camaraderie. It feels like they’ve been friends for years. You buy they are willing to take insane risks for each other and those they’ve sworn to protect. The film holds them up as true believers, as soldiers in a neighborhood where we’ll, “get involved in more capers in one deployment period than most cops see their entire career.”
Ayer almost blows it with cartoonish handling of the Mexican cartel members who are the main antagonists and in the climatic showdown which is one of the worst staged gunfights in recent history. But Gyllenhall and Peña are so rock solid, the missteps hardly matter. Well worth seeing.