Dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg
Starring: Aksel Hennie, Wes Bentley, Stephen Lang, Stephanie Sigman, André Eriksen, Jonathan LaPaglia
Review By Greg Klymkiw
When the United States of America wants something that doesn't belong to them, they're the scariest, nastiest and most relentlessly corrupt power on this Earth. God help you if you try to fight back- your life will never be the same. You might even die.
In the 1980s, oil was discovered off the coast of Norway 500 meters at the bottom of the North Sea. A pipeline had never before been laid so deep and certainly not in deadly waters where the pressure was brutal and potentially crushing. America, of course, wanted a piece of the action. Norway wanted it, rightfully, for themselves. A compromise was struck and in director Erik Skjoldbjærg's fictional rendering of this deal with the devil, we're dragged to almost unfathomable depths below water and into the cesspool to which American-controlled multinational corporations will go to snatch what isn't rightfully theirs.
Skjoldbjærg is, of course, the father of modern Nordic thrillers with his chilling 1997 creep-fest Insomnia, ineffectively remade by the boneheaded Christopher Nolan in 2002. Hollywood will, no doubt, again be seeking remake rights to this new Skjoldbjærg property, though whomever they get to direct it, the likelihood is pretty high that America's complicity in the aforementioned conspiratorial manipulations will be dampened considerably. For now, though, we have the real thing. It's solid, but I wish it was better than it actually is.
What's good about it is Skjoldbjærg's superb direction of the suspense-filled set pieces. His work lessens the potentially irreparable impact of the mediocre screenplay (delivered by five writers no less) to tell what should actually have been a simple, streamlined story. The mechanics of the plot and characters, however, almost always veers into clunky and slightly predictable territory.
Luckily the film features a hypnotic performance from Aksel Hennie as a Norwegian diver who suffers a tragic loss when he takes an initial dive in the American submersible. He discovers that the Americans have cut a sleazy deal with a corrupt Norwegian and that the divers are all being poisoned/manipulated into doing their jobs in a manner that allows them to withstand the crushing pressure down below.
Unfortunately, the tragedy he suffers has been laid upon his shoulders and so he needs to do triple duty to clear his name, expose the Americans and bring honour to Norway by finishing the job he started. On the surface, all this seems quite reasonable on paper and certainly works in a perfunctory fashion to keep things moving. Often, though, the film feels like it's too bogged down in story details and doesn't leave quite enough breathing space for the political ramifications of the story.
In a sense, this potentially fascinating backdrop might well be based on actual facts, but the fictionalization of it is what hampers it. At times the movie feels like everything between the major action/suspense set pieces is shoehorned into the proceedings as the glue to bind one set piece after another.
That said, the film works splendidly when Skjoldbjærg is running our hero through some extremely harrowing paces. From the initial tests on land, to all the phenomenal footage at sea and below water are first-rate filmmaking. We're on the edge of our seats as Skjoldbjærg delivers one fine shot after another that wisely builds suspense with cuts that do in fact offer the sort of breathing space that builds nail-biting suspense.
If anything, the film not only offered several great sequences that were positively terrifying and gripping, but in the process, captured images and emotions that - for lack of any other clear description - induced a physical response. It wasn't the el-cheapo herky-jerky used in so many found footage horror movies and poorly directed action films, but superb compositions, movements and cuts designed to place us in the same psychological and even physical conditions that our main character finds himself within.
Pioneer might truly be the first film in motion picture history to induce sea sickness. This, I believe, is not without considerable merit.
"Pioneer" is part of the TIFF Special Presentation series at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013. Visit the TIFF website HERE.