If A Hijacking were some Hollywood blockbuster — let’s say, starring Harrison Ford from the ’90s — it would be an inspirational tale of the everyman’s triumph over the pirates. It would likely feature quotable quotes like “Get off my ship!” and have a big special effects-heavy hijacking sequence. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Hollywood blockbuster action genre – it certainly works when executed properly. But A Hijacking features none of these tropes and is all the better for it.
With writer/director Tobias Lindholm at its helm, the film defies most expectations while exceeding them, creating a focus on the individuals affected by the event and presenting a constant feeling of dread that casts a pall over even most of the more uplifting moments. Alternating between action on the cargo ship Rozen being hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and the hostage negotiations transpiring back at the shipping company, Lindholm weaves together a story that is more about the slow unraveling of man’s ability to keep composure, to withstand the impossible. This is not about kicking ass and taking names.
In fact, the entire hijacking takes place off screen, taking the focus away completely from the “action” aspect. The audience finds out about the hijacking the same time that the shipping company does.
We have two protagonists here, Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), the mild-mannered family man who is the cargo ship’s cook, and Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), the composed CEO at the shipping company back in Copenhagen. The Somali pirates end up using Mikkel as their hostage representative, putting the distressed man on the phone with the company in Copenhagen to plead for them to cough up their inflated asking price for the ship. Talks are handled in Copenhagen by a British hostage negotiator, Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), who encourages Peter to continuously ask for a significantly lower amount than is demanded of him. As the negotiations drag on, Mikkel and the rest of the previously optimistic crew become more and more emotionally damaged, as does Peter, whose conscience starts to weigh heavily on him.
Lindholm wisely juxtaposes the two claustrophobic spaces of the Rozen and the office, with both spaces transformed into pressure cookers for the men involved. The men on the Rozen, specifically, are sequestered by the pirates into a cramped room where they are forced to relieve themselves in a corner and watch in horror as the ship’s captain slips further and further into illness. The men are drenched in sweat, their eyes darting about in absolute fear. While the office atmosphere carries less fear of immanent death, the stress level there isn’t exactly low either. The leader of the pirates, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), calls the office in Copenhagen with his new demands and sends faxes with threats and new amounts. Each ring of the phone and each screech of the fax machine becomes a blaring sound of foreboding, forcing all of the buttoned-up business men in the negotiation room to jump, then to freeze in their seats.
Being so focused on the individual, A Hijacking really can’t fully succeed without some stellar performances, and the actors involved certainly deliver. As the inhabitants of both the Rozen and the Copenhagen office, Asbæk and Malling shine as they portray very different men who are torn apart in obviously very different ways. When we first encounter Asbæk’s Mikkel, he is on the ship’s phone with his wife and young daughter back in Copenhagen. He is prefaced from the very beginning of the film as a warm person, beloved at home and by his men on the ship, so to watch him be forced to slaughter goats and be held at gunpoint is especially distressing. We watch as his spark of life is systematically dimmed.
Malling’s Peter, on the other hand, seems cold and removed from the situation initially, but he slowly and subtilely looses his cool as the negotiations progress. While we only see glimpses of his relationship with his wife, who visits him in the office, the change in their dynamic becomes emblematic of his unraveling.
It’s almost difficult to come up with any areas in which the film is lacking. Yes, it would be interesting to see more of the men’s families at home and how they react to the hijacking. Or perhaps to have seen the hijacking itself. But A Hijacking succeeds because of its reductive nature. We only need a taste of the families’ sufferings on the homefront – any more, and we would veer into melodramatic territory. We don’t need to see the pirates take down the ship, since seeing the crew suddenly at gunpoint is more unsettling in medias res. Suspense here is not created through pomp and explosions, but through watching a fishing crew caught at gunpoint. Through an incoming fax. Through exponentially growing beads of sweat. It’s the little things, the reduction, that add up to growing suspense.
The Upside: Great performances, especially from Pilou Asbæk, interesting choices on the part of the director, and the feeling of dread enveloping every moment of the film.
The Downside: The film is pretty damn successful, though it would be interesting to see, in an alterate universe, the moments that don’t appear onscreen.
On the Side: Asbæk appeared on this past season of Showtime’s The Borgias.