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Pipe Dreams

Erik Aavatsmark/Vertigo Média

Pioneer (2014)

Norway's natural environment was a big factor in "Insomnia," Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 debut in which Stellan Skarsgård struggles with a murder case and the extended daylight hours, and comes off worst on both counts. It's at the heart of "Pioneer," too — the director's new film set in the early 1980s — right at the moment when exploitation of the North Sea oil lying offshore is about to alter the country from top to bottom. Part paranoid conspiracy thriller and part blue-collar procedural, it maneuvers deep-sea diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) into position as the fly in the ointment for those awaiting Norway's transformation into one of the world's richest countries. They duly set about removing the irritant obstacle; a plot whose fidelity to real events hinted at in the credits is hard to judge, but whose broad authenticity for those caught up in the transformation at the time would seem tough to deny.

Mr. Skjoldbjærg clearly had some venerable American films of the period in mind, giving Petter a diving accident and a personal bereavement as motivation for wondering just what corners are being cut by the management curs. But the film loses its balance when it plays the personal and the geopolitical issues against each other. The finer points of the plot are explored in enough minute detail to become a bit of a drag, although Petter's dogged pursuit of shifty compatriots such as corporate doctor Leif (Jørgen Langhelle) and lawyer Jeger (Eirik Stubø) is engaging enough. Once the senior American in charge turns up and is revealed to be played by Stephen Lang, though, it's clear Mr. Skjoldbjærg has overplayed his hand a bit. A far wilder card in the cast is Stephanie Sigman ("Miss Bala"), whose mere presence suggests a big wide world out beyond the fjords.

Deep-sea diving and the 1980s both open up some rich visual seams for a film to mine, and "Pioneer" is well stocked with authentically grubby locations and authentically alarming fabrics. Thanks to the period and the theme of American intrusion into European geology, there are some small echoes of the original BBC "Edge of Darkness," although naturally without that series' apocalyptic overtones; any hint of such things would have made the fairly staid "Pioneer" blow a fuse. The best thing in the film is Mr. Hennie, whose gift for appearing careworn and beleaguered has already been put to good use in "Headhunters," and which makes Petter an unlikely crusader. Outgunned by international forces and out of his depth, Petter starts to acquire the air of a man freshly emerged from a decompression chamber even when just crossing the street. Whether this impression will survive an imminent American reworking of the story of the Norwegian divers at the hands of no less a political operator than George Clooney remains to be seen.


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