*This is a reprint of my review from FilmFest DC*
At some point while taking in Tobias Lindholm's gripping high seas hostage thriller, A Hijacking, you'll probably start wondering if it is based on a true story. There's no mention of it one way or another in the opening credits, but the director's naturalistic approach and use of mostly unknown actors approach lends a documentary feel. Even as events escalate and unbelievable decisions are made, it never for a second seems implausible. The film is actually a fictional work, following the crew of Danish vessel the "Rozen" as they are held captive by a small but heavily-armed group of Somali pirates.
Lindholm, a Danish filmmaker who recently wrote Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, recognizes right away our Hollywood expectations that someone will swoop in and save the day with a well-timed explosion or two. But that's not at all what this film is ever meant to be. There are no heroes, nobody to come to the rescue. Lindholm stirs up incredible tension by creating an atmosphere of pure anxiety and utter helplessness.
Pilou Asbaek gives a powerful lead performance as Mikkel, an ordinary cook aboard the ship as it sails to Mumbai. Once there, Mikkel plans to quit the job for good and spend time with his wife and child, so we know right away that something awful is going to happen. We never actually see the hijacking take place, because the violence of it isn't really necessary. It's the culture of fear and terror it inspires in the crew, and the impact that has on them emotionally and physically. The seven-man crew and the ship are ransomed for a hefty $15M, which their families are obviously eager to see paid.
The decision falls into the hands of CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), who owns the Rozen and sees this as an opportunity to broker a deal. We learn right away that he's a cold and calculating businessman, and he incorrectly assumes that those skills will come into play in this situation where the only capital is human life. So it's more than a little disturbing to watch him try and bargain down the price like this was an episode of The Price is Right rather than a life or death situation. He finds him in negotiations with Omar (Abdihakin Hasar), a freelance spokesman for the pirates who is as much a hostage on that boat as anybody. He can't leave, has no tangible power to sway the hostage-takers into anything, and will surely be killed if he fails.
If Lindholm is making a statement about today's corporate culture and the way employees have been devalued, then it's a ringing indictment. Most of his sympathy is geared towards the men on the ship, who face degrading confinement, starvation, and the unpredictable mood of their captors. As the negotiations linger with little movement, we see the evolving ship dynamics as the men become aware that the pirates aren't actually the ones prolonging their torment. It's devastating to watch the imposing but soft-featured Mikkel as he's emotionally torn asunder over the course of months. At the same time it's tough not to loathe Ludvigsen as he shallowly tells the captives' families that they are "doing everything they can".
Asbaeck is unforgettable as Mikkel, showing with excruciating detail the toll of the ordeal. Malling manages to humanize the cold and calculating Ludvigsen by teasing the cracks in his commanding facade. Even the pirates are well-portrayed and fully realized as more than just token bad guys or background players. Hasar creates a wonderfully enigmatic anti-hero in Omar, whose loyalties and motivations remain shrouded.
It's the realism Lindholm inspires that is truly unforgettable, resembling the hand-held style favored by Paul Greengrass. It just so happens that Greengrass has a similar film on the way, Captain Phillips, which chronicles a true Somali pirate attack from back in 2009. That film has much bigger stars and will play in front of more people, but A Hijacking's emotional impact coupled with terrific performances will make it tough to beat.