In movies, a lot of what we're supposed to be scared of are things like zombies, monsters, aliens, and serial killers, most of which we'll probably never encounter. But for me, one of the scariest things I can imagine is a person pointing a gun at me and shouting at me in a language I can't understand. It's a fear brought to life in the excellent, visceral, bare-bones thriller A Hijacking, a film about a freighter taken over by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and the painful, drawn-out negotiations between the pirates and the CEO of the Danish company that owns the ship, with the terrified crew reduced to little more than bargaining chips. Watch the trailer for A Hijacking below.
Told in Danish and English and inspired by the real-life hijackings of Danish-owned freighters in 2007 and 2008, A Hijacking takes you back and forth between the hijacked ship, the MV Rosen, and the Danish company where the hostage negotiations are being planned. On the ship, we follow the cook Mikkel (played by Pilou Asbaek), a likable family man who reluctantly becomes the hostages' liaison with the pirates when the ship's captain is taken ill. In Denmark, we track the CEO of the shipping company Peter Ludvigson (played by Søren Malling), a stone-faced dealmaker who goes against the counsel of a hijacking specialist (played by Gary Porter) and makes the unusual and possibly dangerous decision to handle the communications with the pirates himself instead of bringing in a professional. The pirates are represented by Omar (played by Abdihakin Asgar), who stridently maintains that he isn't a pirate but is only acting as their translator and negotiator.
You might assume that a film like this will be a story of heroism on the high seas, of how Mikkel is able to outsmart his captors and rally the crew to take back the ship. In fact, a soon-to-be-released American movie about a Somali pirate hijacking called Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass seems to take that route. But instead, A Hijacking is about the maddening grind that these pirate kidnappings often end up being, with offers and counteroffers sent via sporadic satellite phone exchanges over months as tensions and frustrations slowly rise with neither side willing to budge even though both sides just want the ordeal to end.
A Hijacking is also not about greedy corporate types willing to sacrifice lives for dollars, despite the seeming insanity of things like countering the pirates' initial demand of $15 million with an offer of just $250,000. A big reason for this is Malling's utterly fascinating performance as the CEO Peter, who seems well aware and sensitive to what's at stake yet still handles himself with the uncanny coolness and calm of a boardroom hitman. This contrasts wonderfully with Mikkel, who's being slowly driven mad by the constant danger, the claustrophobia, and the lack of progress and information while he and the ship's engineer (played by Roland Møller) attempt to safeguard their lives by befriending their would-be killers.
As I said, A Hijacking isn't about heroism or how one man -- be it Mikkel or Peter -- save the crew, nor is it necessarily about mental fortitude, keeping hope alive, or the triumph of the human spirit. As the title of the film says, this is about a hijacking, probably very similar to the many hijackings that happen every year but are purposefully kept out of the news to keep public opinion from influencing negotiations. What you're left with is a tense, unnerving slow-motion thriller where you -- like the hostages and the negotiating team in Denmark -- never know what's coming next, where the best- or worst-case scenario could happen at any moment. It's no wonder A Hijacking has been such a hit on the festival circuit, to the point that I don't think a similar film -- even one with Hollywood's biggest actor and one of its most respected action directors -- will have much to add.