“I sunk your battleship.” – Classic board game phrase
Since when did Hollwood stop being a reliable provider of economically ratcheted thriller tension? Argo, Lawless, and Zero Dark Thirty proved that there’s an audience out there for world-weary thrillers on a smaller scale, so why exactly do studios keep throwing huge budgets on top of questionable projects like World War Z and Battleship? My best explanation is that studios have a gambling problem and they’re more willing to throw big cash at big projects than modest cash onto more niche productions. There’s little about A Hijacking that wouldn’t translate to American audiences, but its Danish setting and lack of star names makes it more of an off-center proposition.
So Americans will get their Somali pirates film when Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips comes around in October, but until then Greengrass has a pretty high bar to live up to. That’s much thanks to director Tobias Lindholm’s sturdy refusal to cop to conventions of the hostage genre, where the hostages form a deep bond of friendship to get themselves out of the situation their corporate bosses are too self-serving to care about. Though we initially see things from the perspective of Mikkel (Johan Phillip Asbæk), the cook on the cargo ship that’s taken over by armed pirates, the focus is quickly split between him and corporate negotiations aspect of it.
From that perspective, corporate official Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) actually becomes the main protagonist of the picture, as he subverts expectations of upper class selfishness by tackling the intense negotiations process himself. With all that set up, the film becomes less a twist-turn narrative than a meticulous chess match between Peter and the pirates, represented by translator Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who seems to be just as unhappy to be on the ship as those held captive.
Articulating miserable conditions in a hostage situation can only get you so far, so Lindholm focuses less degrading environments than escalating relationship complexes. Peter is warned early on that his position in the corporation risks him getting attached to the men on the ship, and it’s most intense watching Malling’s intially stone cold demeanor crack around the edges as the stakes are dragged out. Asbæk also gets plenty focus, but not as a stereotypically stoic protagonist, but as the timid cook he is, wildly out of his element and in understandable subservience to his situation.
The relationship between the hostages and the pirates isn’t so cut and dry either, occasionally allowing for some common human affinity between them. These aren’t the one dimensionally otherized thugs we saw barking commands in Argo, though the film doesn’t make the mistake of empathizing with them. Every once in a while we’re reminded of their ruthless natures, either just as an intimidation tactic or, in a late act jolt of violence, as an unmotivated bit of cold butchery. They’d be perfectly intimidating as simple villains, but their slight degrees of humanity pay off in the added uncertainty.
As I said, there’s not much polish on the shell of A Hijacking, but Lindholm makes skillful use of the two differentiated environments. Life on the cargo ship is dank, increasingly squalid, and with hardly enough room for the unexpected stowaways. It’s a hot tin of melting sludge. The corporate building, meanwhile, turns out to be a prison of its own for Peter, its cold gray environments embittering the isolation he feels. There are no broad actions taken in A Hijacking. It’s the kind of thriller that can only be assembled through nimble precision; a more finely tuned operation than the lunk-headed studio behemoths are capable of making nowaday.
Bottom Line: A Hijacking delivers all the intensely intimate thrills this year’s summer blockbusters have failed to produce, putting focus on humans rather than star icons.