In the 1970’s, oil was discovered in the North Sea off the shore of Norway. It was a potential goldmine…but the oil was in such deep waters that it required state of the art technology for divers to even survive being down there. The Americans were, of course, happy to help lay the pipeline (ka-ching).
Erik Skjoldbjaerg, the Norwegian director responsible for Insomnia and Prozac Nation, splices a political thriller conceit into this timeline, and the result is Pioneer, a gripping, uncomfortable ride that never stops escalating. Most American audiences know nothing about Norway before or after the oil boom that made them the world’s richest country, and Pioneer is a fictionalized retelling of the tale, with deep sea divers as unfortunate collateral damage, thanks to the whims of oil-starved businessmen on either side.
Petter (Aksel Hennie) and Knut (Andre Eriksen) are brothers, and two thirds of the Norwegian diving team (along with Jorgen) set to test the new tech and Ronald’s (Cold Case’s Jonathan LaPaglia) gas that will help them survive in unheard of depths. The film opens with a trippy, claustrophobic verification test, with the Norwegians and brusque American douche cliché Mike (Interstellar and The Hunger Games’ Wes Bentley), getting them used to the immense pressure that accompanies a depth of 500 meters. While they “pass” the test, Jorgen complains of sickness, and the trio hallucinate an albatross, which is never a happy literary metaphor.
Afterwards, on the eve of the first real test dive in open sea, Knut tells Petter that it’s his last dive; he wants to spend more time with his wife and son, and can only do that as a diving supervisor. Knut should know not to say things like that, but then again, he presumably doesn’t know he’s in a movie.
Suffice to say, a tragic accident occurs underwater, and the rest of the proceedings attempt to uncover the mystery. At first, it seems pretty clear that Petter, suffering from blackouts, is at fault and in denial, refusing to be culpable, but there’s a new wrinkle in each successive scene, that makes things as fuzzy as a human brain 320 meters below sea level.
The open sea and deep water is terrifying to me, one of many reasons why I can never be Pacey. And while Skjoldbjaerg captures that fear, he taps into something more technical, yet even more nefarious: the pressurization of the human body and the requisite decompression sickness. Petter is Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men if Hoffman was hallucinating, blacking out, bald, possibly involved in his own investigation and plucked in and out of deep waters like the jerkwad kid at a much more treacherous dunk tank. In other words, I have no idea how Petter can walk upright, let alone do any of the things required of him here.
The oil operation is a game changer for all parties involved, with massive money promised if the pipeline can be constructed and the fossil fuel brought ashore. This is the effective backdrop for dozens of sinister variables. The Norwegians unfortunately need the Americans, because only the U.S. scientists have configured a gas that allows “safe” deep diving. What will the Norwegians do to get the gas? What will the Americans, represented by the grizzled Stephen Lang‘s Ferris, do to keep their upper hand and the money that comes with forced cooperation? Petter finds himself in deeper $#*! than even in water, as the only one who might stumble upon the truth. The way Pioneer unravels, Petter (and the audience) never really know the truth, but it’s undoubtedly an intriguing excursion into the corrupt politics of oil. The plot points are nothing new to the thriller genre (a missing tape! A limping murderer! Cover ups! Stealing manila file folders!), but the unique setting transcends the familiar trappings, thanks to such queasy clever scenes like air pressurization-as-horrifying-interrogation-technique. Besides, it’s always fun to jump back into the 1970’s political thriller sub-genre.
Pioneer will be available on iTunes/OnDemand and open in NY and LA this Friday, December 5. Pioneer will expand to additional theaters December 12.