As its seemingly blunt title states, A Hijacking takes as its subject the details of a crime, with twists and turns on its storytelling journey. On the face of it, this quietly gripping Danish film’s synopsis follows a simple if scarcely neat and clean narrative: a Danish ship, en route to Mumbai, is hijacked by Somali pirates. A protracted stalemate ensues, during which the men in clean suits and climate-controlled offices back home negotiate with the pirates, playing with the lives of the increasingly haggard and anxious crew members on board.
But that’s hardly the end of the story. Writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s masterfully minimalist film essentially takes place in two settings — at sea and in the home office in Copenhagen — but summons up a multitiered dimension of emotions and moral-dramatic implications.
Early in the film, we get a foreshadowing taste of the separate lives in the corporate office and onboard the ship. Before news of the hijacking, the flinty cool CEO (Søren Malling) is seen stepping in with his too-soft underling, taking over a bargaining deal with Japanese businessmen in which he determinedly “gets his price.” Similar tactics eerily return to a different table as he does business with the hijackers over a crackly phone connection.
Crosscurrents of language and cultural values play a strong role in the tale, not only in the linguistic gulf between the hijackers and their prey, but in the subtle vocabularies of business speak versus the plain speak of the crew members. Omar is the “translator,” the sole point of contact between the tactical CEO and the pirate contingent, but he bristles when he’s identified as one of the pirates. As the cat-and-mouse game of offers and counteroffers drags on, the professional hijacking negotiation consultant tells the CEO to exercise patience, reasoning that “time is a Western thing. It means nothing to them.”
Meanwhile, we’re aware of the slow-brewing ennui and frazzled nerves on the ship in the throes of an occupation as our main ship-bound protagonist, the cook (Johan Philip “Pilou” Asbæk), is forced to slaughter a goat on board; the implications of self-imperilment are palpable.
With its cool pacing and mostly music-free ambience of tense engagement, A Hijacking is one of the subtlest and most cliché-free entries in the “crime scenery” genre of recent years. Skillfully moving between chilling present-day realities and cunning cinematic strategies, it proceeds stealthily and dares us to look away or think elsewhere.
A Hijacking opens at the Riviera Theater this Friday, July 26th.