You might expect big action from a movie about the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates. But after a preliminary flurry of roughing-up, the Danish drama A Hijacking is mostly about the excruciating process of getting to “yes” when language is the least of the barriers between two very different mindsets.
A Hijacking is the story of two men and their fate, but in its unassuming, specific way, it’s also about global capitalism and its fallout. On one side sits arrogant Western rational calculation, on the other the intimidation and brute force that have become common practice in less affluent societies in disarray.
The action, such as it is, toggles between the captured ship, an increasingly fetid hellhole becalmed in the crippling heat of the Indian Ocean, and the sleek, silver-gray corporate headquarters of the Copenhagen-based shipping-company that owns it.
When we meet the CEO, Peter (Soren Malling), he’s fresh off rescuing his deputy from botching a lucrative deal with Japanese clients. Slim, confident and disciplined in a series of crisp shirts, Peter is accustomed to being in control. He’s the antithesis of his marooned ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek) — the film’s other protagonist, and a shaggy, good-natured lug who wants only to get home to his wife and kids.
Much of the movie turns on the various ransom sums tossed back and forth between the two sides in a dangerously manipulative game of cat and mouse. The proceedings are mediated on land by a British piracy expert (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) and at sea by a no-less-savvy Somali translator (Abdihakin Asgar).
Inspired by the seizure of several Danish vessels in the last decade, A Hijacking was written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, whose father was a seaman. Lindholm has worked with former Dogme-school director Thomas Vinterberg, who made The Celebration and the upcoming The Hunt.
The Dogme movement, with its anti-Hollywood credo of DIY with natural light, is pretty much dead. But its memory lingers on in A Hijacking — at its worst in the cliched overuse of a jerky hand-held camera and in awkward, wishful scenes when hostages and their captors join in romanticized rapport; at its best in the reluctance to editorialize themes or cue our emotions on the soundtrack.
And yet a film of ideas does make itself known, in Mikkel’s slow disintegration as the weeks and months stretch out, in the erosion of Peter’s preternatural cool as he slogs through the ping-pong exchange of offer and counteroffer. Peter is no villain, but no hero either, even though he resists the growing impatience of the company’s board, for whom compassion has its limits when profit turns to loss. When his own wife urges him to let someone else take over the negotiations, Peter loses his cool; whether it’s at the hint of failure or because he wants to save his men remains admirably unclear.
There is a kind of victory at the end of A Hijacking, but it has little to do with big bucks. Mostly, this is a melodrama about process and pressure — whose outcomes, for Peter and for Mikkel and for those around them, cast a dark shadow over the very idea of what counts as a win. (Recommended)