Under Pressure, by David Bax
Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Pioneer starts off with an unfortunate overuse of onscreen text setting up what we’re about to see. This text-planation exists to make it clear that the story herein is based on true events in an attempt to lend a quasi-journalistic air to the piece. Yes, it is both true and vital knowledge that Norwegian and American oil companies for decades risked and sacrificed the lives of many commercial offshore divers in the North Sea in pursuit of profit; Still, the bigger impact is not the dry and academic one we get from reading about it on a movie screen but the emotional one we get from experiencing a single story well-told. Once Skjoldbjærg dispenses with the perfunctory homework assignment, he corrects course admirably, making Pioneer a stellar entry in the corporate thriller sub-genre.
Aksel Hennie (Headhunters) stars as Petter, who is part of a joint Norwegian/American crew of divers laying oil pipe along the bottom of the North Sea. When a work mishap claims the life of another crewmember, Petter seeks to prove he wasn’t to blame and, in so doing, begins to find hints of a vague, menacing conspiracy in the upper levels of the corporations for whom he works. He endeavors to uncover the truth and prevent further loss of life while combating lingering pressure sickness that makes his senses often unreliable.
In the early going, Pioneer is more or less a submarine film. These are men in high-risk professions doing complicated work in close quarters with the threat of being crushed by nature should anything go wrong. In such settings, there exists a natural tension and an obligation to focus on process that makes these kinds of stories inherently cinematic. Add in the experimental testing and physiological effects of deep diving and the result is as much Das Boot as it is an underwater The Right Stuff.
Once aboveground, Skjoldbjærg (director of the original Insomnia) effortlessly switches gears to corporate intrigue tale. Hennie’s bracing and immediate performance as a bedeviled everyman and the suffocating, constant danger he’s in are reminiscent of Michael Mann’s The Insider. The addition of Petter’s unstable mental state and the maybe/maybe not hallucinations he battles evoke Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.
Pioneer isn’t just a round-up of influences, though. Skjoldbjærg’s style pastiche coheres to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Petter’s harrowing descent wraps us up viscerally in real-world deceptions and their devastating collateral damage. More than that, the strength of the film’s imagery – a tiny capsule containing multiple lives in the vast, blue deep; monstrous industrial machinery that dwarfs and even seems to stalk the protagonist – make Pioneer a more effective polemic against the cold disinterest of greed than any collection of title cards could hope to be.