by Hope Madden
Pioneer braids claustrophobia, conspiracy and political intrigue to create a compelling, often uncomfortable thriller. Set in 1980 Norway, the film follows a Norwegian/American collaboration to create an oil pipeline at then-unattempted depths.
Norway is eager to own the project and, by extension, the oil itself, but they need American “know how” to train divers to work at depths of up to 500 meters. Tragedy strikes, and one diver puzzles through layers of deception, cover up, greed and corporate shenanigans to uncover its cause.
Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg crafts a tight but rich thriller, thanks in part to the savvy work of cinematographer Jallo Faber. His camera heightens every sensation: the paranoia of being followed, the thrill of the chase, the lead character’s panic. More effective than anything is the way Skjoldbjaerg and Faber develop tension by exploiting the sinking, oppressive claustrophobic nightmare of the depths.
The look of the film is also spot-on for its time period, but without a compelling story, all the set decoration and camera tricks in the world couldn’t keep you interested. Co-scriptor Skjoldbjaerg – working with a team of writers – keeps you in the head of diver Petter (a wonderful Aksel Hennie). You feel his confusion, empathize with his desperation, and work out the details as he does.
It’s a cagey approach, one that works as well as it does because of Hennie’s keen performance. The solution to the mystery is always just out of reach, which can’t help but compel attention.
The supporting cast is very large, though it boasts a few standout performances. Wes Bentley is fun in a change of pace role as an American thug diver and Ane Dal Torp’s enigmatic performance is weirdly fascinating.
Ensemble mystery/thrillers can be hard to stay on top of, especially if they’re primarily foreign language efforts. While Pioneer is never impossible to follow, it can get slippery here and there. On the whole, though, it’s a suspenseful surprise.