A Hijacking: Real Life Piracy

Years ago, as a location assistant for a New York producer with some legit independent credits, I arrived on set, and was handed a manilla envelope. My mission: drive to Brooklyn to deliver a check for the previous day’s location. We’d gone a day over, and I knew that negotiations on a fair price had been tough.

While crossing the Manhattan Bridge, my cell phone rang. “Here’s the deal,” my boss said. “There is no check in that envelope. You have to tell him that we’re not paying him. He didn’t get it in writing, so fuck him.” Traffic was nasty, so I had plenty of time to muse about what might go wrong. Was the landlord a wannabe mafioso who might break my thumb? Smash the windows of my rented Taurus? But I also had time to psych myself up: He was a developer evicting second-generation tenants of Park Slope brownstones to polish them and sell them to Yuppies. That’s why he had empty units to rent to us. The extra day meant zero to him. So yeah. Fuck him.

I arrived at a supermarket parking lot to make the “delivery” and found, not the face of evil, but Isaac the nineteen-year-old nephew. A young Hasid with no beard yet, I thought he was going to hyperventilate in my passenger seat. “A deal is a deal!” “My uncle’s going to be so mad at me.” I did what any caring person would do. I said, “Isaac, you’re right. My boss is an asshole. I wish I could help you.”

That’s piracy! When negotiations about money devolve from “Here’s what’s fair” straight through “Here’s what I can get elsewhere on the open market” to “Here’s your only choice, and I’ve got force to back that up.” “Tell your uncle he was insufficiently cutthroat yesterday,” I might as well have told Isaac. “If he’s so dumb that he didn’t stand at the fusebox demanding payment in advance, then he’s a pathetic louse whose trust we don’t need.” And that’s why I’m a writer, not a producer.

Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) in Tobias Lindholm’s "A Hijacking."

Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) in Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking.”

Writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s film A Hijacking, like most thrillers, is all about men behaving badly. In this case the context – a Danish ship seized by pirates on the Indian Ocean – automatically makes it a political comment about the inhumanity of world capitalism. Fifteen minutes in, you realize that you won’t get to see the obvious bit of action: the Somali pirates storming the ship. In its place you saw Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the shipping company back in Copenhagen, deploy some macho business tactics of his own (“macho” in a Kierkegaardian way, perhaps), both toward his business adversaries and his own employees, who rely on his bad-ass negotiating skills.

It’s a delight to see a screenwriter hitting his narrative marks without belaboring the obvious grander point. The nuanced characters, the psychopathic misplacement of responsibility – “I’m not a pirate, I’m trying to help you” – and the utter senselessness of violence, it’s all there, but you never feel like you’re being preached to. You just keep wondering what will happen next, with a sick feeling that it’s about to go very wrong.

Not much to say that the critics, especially Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, haven’t already said, except that this film is a study in trimming the fat from a narrative. Only once did it feel like Lindholm was pumping up the tension artificially – when the CEO’s board of directors gave him a deadline to finalize a deal with the pirates – and I didn’t even mind that. Every action that you assume is merely there for a bit of characterization eventually pays off a second time, whether it’s the CEO’s habit of dismissing people around him when he wants privacy, or the other lead’s affection for his wife back home.

I say “the other lead,” because, among its subtleties, A Hijacking forces you to spend a lot more time away from the protagonist than most thrillers. Its hero is the likable cook on the ship, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), about as likely a face of the evils of global capitalism as Isaac’s back in Brooklyn. He looks like someone you’d meet in the beer line at a folk festival. His objective is to get through the ordeal, while his affection for his wife gets exploited by the pirates to turn the screws on the CEO.

Deep inside both men’s resolve to get through the hijacking is their respective ways of dealing with their spouses’ demands to spend some time with them. Capitalism, the film suggests, is this machinery all around us that we engage in to bring some bread home for the family. We do it for them, and some of us are so skilled at it that it sours even our dealings with our families, while others, the sweeter ones among us, get beaten by it and go home to that family as a refuge.

It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.