“A Hijacking” opens with negotiations. They have nothing to do with what will become the gripping Danish film’s central drama: the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates. Before that harrowing event has even gotten underway, we’re introduced to Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), the Mumbai-bound ship’s jovial cook, as he’s talking to his wife, back in Denmark, by phone.
She’s so beautiful and understanding, he tells her, offering flattery to defuse her irritation at his announcement that he’ll be home two days later than planned, so that he can train a new cook. It’s the kind of small give-and-take that happens every day between couples, co-workers and collaborators of all kinds.
As it happens, it’s also taking place, almost simultaneously, between the chief executive of the shipping company Mikkel works for and a Japanese businessman, who are working out the price of a deal. Peter (Soren Malling), the CEO, drives a hard bargain, getting the price he wants only when he stands up and walks away from the table.
These examples of mutual concession set the tone for the film, which is less a thriller than a protracted negotiation set in a pair of cramped, airless rooms, hundreds of miles from each other. On the ship, where the crew of seven has been taken hostage in the middle of the Indian Ocean by a band of gun-toting thugs, one room is dominated by the energy of Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the pirates’ English-speaking Somali translator. In Copenhagen, the room dominated is by Peter, who has decided to personally handle the task of bargaining down the starting ransom of $15 million, against the advice of his board’s outside consultant (Gary Skjoldmose Porter).
As the men in each room grow increasingly tense, two sets of numbers move in opposite directions, charting the progress of the negotiation. The on-screen title “Day 1” slowly turns into “Day 7” and then “Day 67,” as the weeks turn into months. The other number set, of course, is the ransom fee, which Peter gradually whittles away at, in the same way that he would bargain with a business partner.
The stakes, however, are quite different from what he is used to.
To refuse to call “A Hijacking” a thriller is not to say it isn’t thrilling, in a dryly cerebral way. Writer-director Tobias Lindholm has a point to make, and he makes it pungently. For Omar and the pirates, whose speech is left un-subtitled, the hostage-taking is simply a business. Omar’s friendly voice on the phone — “Hi, Peter,” he says, like he’s talking to a friend — along with the smiley face he signs a fax with, are in stark contrast to the nasty nature of his profession. Though Omar insists that he’s not one of the pirates, it’s obvious that he has done this many times before.
For Peter, it’s a little different. He also has played this game many times before, but not for such high stakes. The risk of his emotions causing him to lose control of the proceedings is frighteningly real.
Needless to say, he isn’t in control. Whether Omar is, on the other hand, is also debatable. Is he running the show? Or does he, like the ship’s hostages, take orders from the pirates?
And what of Mikkel and the other crew members? Throughout the negotiations, Lindholm does a pretty good job of evoking the men’s mounting anguish as food, fresh water and hope grow scarce.
They have reason to feel hopeless. In the ripped-from-the-headlines world of deal-making that “A Hijacking” depicts, they’re not three-dimensional people so much as a pile of human bargaining chips.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity and some violence. In Danish, English and Somali with subtitles. 99 minutes.