Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking” is a thriller that breaks most of the genre’s rules. There’s lots of talk and almost no action. Only one act of violence takes place and it happens off-screen. The film starts off with one character, a chef onboard a ship off the coast of India, but proves to be more interested in the CEO of the company that owns that ship, a seemingly blander figure. In fact, its first ten minutes seem intended for CNBC junkies. But like Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” “A Hijacking” comes to show the power of talk.
While heading for harbor, the cargo ship MV Rozen is attacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Chef Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) and engineer Jan (Roland Møller) are taken hostage, along with the rest of the crew. The Somalis want an outrageous amount of money. Speaking through a translator/ spokesman whose exact relationship to the pirate crew remains a bit mysterious, they negotiate with Peter (Søren Malling), the shipping company CEO. At first, the Somalis ask for 15 million dollars, while Peter is only willing to offer $250,000. Threats of violence to the crew hang in the air, but boredom and running out of food –– the crew turn to fishing and killing goats –– seem like bigger threats as the days mount and no deal is reached.
The scenes onboard the ship are captured with a minimum of visual fuss. Lindholm seemingly wants to show the squalor of life sans adequate sanitation without dwelling on scatology. A handheld camera contributes to an air of naturalism. Back at home in Denmark, the film’s style could better be described as corporate realism. White is the dominant color, emanating from artificial lighting –– the CEO seems to get as little sunshine as the hostages on whose behalf he’s negotiating –– and the paint on the walls. In their own way, the corporate headquarters look remarkably glum and airless. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck comes up with a remarkable array of the same ashen tones as Peter’s hair.
Asbæk and Malling acted alongside each other in the Danish TV series “Borgen,” for which Lindholm worked as a writer, but they have no screen time together here. In fact, “A Hijacking” works at keeping the worlds of Denmark and the Indian Ocean rigorously separate. They’re connected only by phone and fax, and even those communications are fraught with tension and confusion. Somali translator Omar usually takes over the phone calls, preventing direct communication between Peter and Mikkel. Without doing so overtly, “A Hijacking” has plenty to say about the risks our overreliance on electronic communication carry.
The Somalis are presented as a group of scary men with guns, but I’m sure that’s exactly how they’d seem to Jan and Mikkel. Once or twice, their humane side shines through, as they allow the Danes moments of pleasure. But they’re also shown to be capable of startling violence. If you’re looking for a sociological dissertation on the roots of Somali piracy in poverty and a failed state, this isn’t the film for you. It’s honest about being far more interested in its Danish characters.
“A Hijacking” is remarkable as much for what it avoids doing as for what it accomplishes. The pirates’ storming of the Rozen is never shown. More time is given to Peter than Mikkel. The film doesn’t exactly present the CEO as an action hero, but it shows him growing progressively more obsessed and strained over the hostage crisis. The relatively austere nature of “A Hijacking” contributes to its convincing quality –– and I suspect it’s easier to fake the tension onboard a ship under siege than that of a boardroom. The film’s final scene implies that Peter is as much a prisoner as Mikkel.
Lindholm’s commitment to realism extends to casting real hijacking-negotiation expert Gary Skjoldmose Porter as Connor, who aids Peter. “A Hijacking” may be a relatively low-key film, but it slowly overwhelms you.
A HIJACKING | Directed by Tobias Lindholm | Magnolia Pictures | In Danish with English subtitles | Opens Jun. 21 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org