With a title as direct as A Hijacking, you might be inclined to think you know exactly what the film will deliver, and while the titular event is obviously its central focus, it’s not in the way you’d expect. Stripped of the choreographed action set pieces and dramatic excesses that have come to define films of this subject matter, A Hijacking drops the heroics and histrionics and instead focuses intently on the psychological and logistical aspects of a Danish cargo ship that has been hijacked by a group of Somalian pirates. Even the pirates themselves are mostly relegated to the background, as the film hones in on the increasingly intense negotiations between Peter (Søren Malling), the shipping company’s CEO, and Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the pirates’ translator, as well as on the emotional unraveling of Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), the ship’s cook who is the liaison between the hostages and the translator.
Director Tobias Lindholm’s approach to the subject matter is as impressive as it is atypical. With its tight framing and handheld camerawork, A Hijacking creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy that allows the initial mundanity of the negotiations to take on a power of its own while the tensions on all fronts are constantly on the rise. Through this meticulous attention to detail (especially facial expressions, body language, vocal tone), the film forces the viewer to feel the weight of time passing. From the seconds spent in the boardroom as everyone nervously awaits the next call or fax, to the days, weeks, and months that pass as the crews’ lives hang by a thread as they’re left to wonder why their boss won’t save them by giving in to the demands of the Somalians, each moment carries with it the emotional, physical, and psychological pressures of the situation, depicting, with brutal honesty, the heavy burden for all involved.
Making a film as minimalist and tightly focused as A Hijacking is not an easy proposition, but it manages to hit all the right notes. Aside from the wonderfully naturalistic, claustrophobic direction, the acting is uniformly excellent, the characters are remarkably well-drawn, and by essentially sidestepping a truly us-versus-them mentality, the film achieves a raw yet balanced realism that never wavers. Peter is fiercely loyal to his employees, but also shrewd enough to both account for the board of director’s opinions and follow the advice of the negotiator they’ve hired to assist him. Meanwhile, Omar is relentless with his psychological tactics on both Peter and Mikkel, but he is also adamant in professing that he’s not one of the pirates; his desperation to end the dispute is as genuine as his fear of the pirates who hired him. By placing the characters in a moral gray area and keeping the viewers so firmly entrenched in their various perspectives, the film is able to remain genuinely surprising and thrilling, because the action is driven not by a singular overarching plot, but by an array of realistic decisions made by complicated, unpredictable people forced into a situation that is out of their depths.
By so naturally and effortlessly grounding these moral conflicts within the characters, Lindholm not only helps to flesh them out and make them three-dimensional — not to mention add layers of complexity to the drama — but he also allows the tension to arise from the everyday incidents and the increasingly harsh psychic toll it takes on everyone involved. The resulting depth of feeling is integral to the success of the film’s minimalist construction whereby the potential for explosive drama or action is replaced by a heightened focus on the minutiae that most other films would simply gloss over. While nothing in A Hijacking is necessarily revolutionary, it’s the kind of economical, no-frills, intelligent thriller that’s all too rare these days. Here, less truly is more.