Coming down the pipeline in a few months is Captain Phillips, a Paul Greengrass-directed, Tom Hanks-starring action thriller based on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. It looks to be full of shaking cameras, soldier-type people running around, and aggro musical stylings. It’ll probably be good, at least. But it’s been beaten to the punch in bringing the hot topic of Somali piracy to the big screen. A Hijacking, a Danish movie not based on any real life incident, takes an almost diametrically opposed approach to the one that it looks like Phillips will use. And in doing so, it’s one of the most effective suspense films in years.
En route home after a long voyage, a Danish shipping vessel, the MV Rozen is captured by pirates, who demand a ransom from the crew’s employers. The story is split between focusing on Mikkel (Johan Asbaek) the ship’s cook, and Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the company, who takes it upon himself to negotiate directly with the pirates. The ordeal stretches out, first for weeks, and then for months, as precarious dealmaking goes down between Peter and the pirates.
A Hijacking works by making the audience feel the pain of the hostages and their loved ones. Clocking in at just under 100 minutes, the film manages to truly seem as though it’s encapsulated months’ worth of psychological deterioration. And yet it doesn’t ever feel boring. Instead, every scene on the boat seethes with tension. Even as Mikkel and his fellow captives attempt to be friendly with the pirates, a seasick unease lingers over every gesture and spoken word. They always have guns pointed at them, and who knows what action could upset the mercurial moods of the ones holding the guns.
The scenes in Denmark are simultaneously a relief and a way of winching the situation tighter. Peter and his advisors are in a seemingly powerless position. On the advice of a professional negotiator, the negotiations are deliberately handled as if they are any other business transaction, but it’s one in which the other party holds all the bargaining chips, and lives are at stake.
Both these worlds are realized in immersive detail, and deliberately presented in contrast. Denmark is cold and somber, filmed with a steady hand and populated with controlled performances. Malling is magnificently subdued as Peter, a rigid professional whose icy exterior hides a gnawing anxiety over the lives of his men. The Rozen is hot, bathing in the heat of the Sun over the Indian Ocean. The more time goes on, the filthier the ship and all living on it become, and the worse it looks for the crewmen. Asbaek is working with the complete opposite physicality from Malling, as he turns into more and more of an animal the longer he has to live in subhuman conditions.
A Hijacking is committed to verisimilitude, denying exploitation. The actual hijacking is not seen on screen. Director Tobias Lindholm and his crew are more interested in psychological tension than whiz-bang theatrics. The situation is ultimately resolved through diplomacy, not a squad of soldiers. The closest thing to a release of tension is a single moment of horrifying violence, one that leaves the movie on a troubling note. It aims to not allow you to leave the theater without empathizing with victims of such real-life violence. And that’s what makes the film so memorable – and haunting.