When a thief steals something precious and demands money for its return, that’s about as raw an example of commerce as anything that happens on Wall Street. The whole definition of “value” gets distilled to its essence: How much is this item really worth? How badly does the victim need it back? And can all parties leave their indignation and desperation aside when the bargaining begins?
Early in Tobias Lindholm’s tense drama A Hijacking, Danish shipping magnate Peter Ludvigsen (played by Søren Malling) walks into a negotiation that his underling is botching; when Peter walks out, he’s knocked several million dollars off the contract. That’s what he’s good at. So when a band of Somali pirates seizes one of his corporation’s freighters—along with its seven-man crew—Peter ignores the counsel of an outside adviser, who suggests that he hire an independent agent to handle the conversations with the pirates’ spokesman, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar). Peter has never met an adversary he couldn’t out-deal.
What makes A Hijacking so effective is that the movie isn’t solely about a contest of wills between Peter and Omar. For one thing, Omar repeatedly insists he’s not a pirate, he’s just a translator, and he can’t make any decisions or special pleas to his employers. (Still, he seems to know a lot about what they will and won’t do.) Also, Omar keeps dragging the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek) into his telephone conversations with Peter, to manipulate both men’s emotions. Lindholm makes the audience privy to the advice Peter is getting: that the pirates will take any “yes” from the Danes as a signal to ask for more. And Lindholm shows what Mikkel is hearing from Omar: that this stand-off could drag on for months, unless the cook’s bosses drop all their nitpicky haggling. But since the sides are separated by thousands of miles and deep cultural differences, the communication between them is sparse and inarticulate.
Lindholm doesn’t try to do too much with A Hijacking. Most of the film’s action—including the actual hijacking—takes place offscreen, and Lindholm doesn’t milk the melodramatic aspects of the story, aside from focusing periodically on Mikkel’s family back home, and his efforts to keep his wedding ring away from the pirates. Nor is A Hijacking especially heavy-handed about its sociopolitical point of view. Lindholm contrasts scenes of Mikkel bonding with the pirates over a fresh fish dinner with scenes of Peter receiving a visit from his stylish, beautiful wife, who treats this whole crisis like just another day at the office—the implication being that Mikkel and Peter aren’t really on the same team, ultimately. But A Hijacking also doesn’t downplay the cruelty of the pirates, who won’t even let their captives use the ship’s toilet, forcing them instead to fill a bucket in the corner of their stiflingly hot quarters. And the film frequently humanizes Peter, too, including one memorable shot where he sits in his office in his undershirt, weak and scruffy, captured by a camera unsteady as an ocean wave.
A Hijacking’s even-handedness robs the film of some of the surge a great thriller should have, and aside from the occasional grace note, Lindholm is more concerned with keeping his visual storytelling unfussy and clear than infusing it with cinematic style. But Lindholm understands human behavior and social dynamics well, capturing his CEO’s world—where everybody calls each other by first names, with a perfunctory casualness—and how it clashes with the world of the pirates, who don’t care about timetables, good faith, or due diligence.
The best choice Lindholm makes is to depict the conversations between Peter and Omar as staticky and echoey, with no flow. Coupled with Omar’s insistence to Mikkel that he can’t get any clear answers from the pirates either, the technological snafus add to the overall sense that no progress is ever going to be made. The nature of a tough negotiation is that neither side really knows what the other wants, because each wants to “win,” and both of their bottom lines change the longer the process drags on. But when the two sides share almost no common ground, the situation becomes almost impossible. A Hijacking is more about one incident than about how it relates universally, but in thoughtfully exploring the specifics and emotions of that incident, Lindholm is able to show how modern life sometimes seems devoid of any accord.