A coolly assured nail-biter from Denmark, “A Hijacking” takes a story we’re vaguely familiar with from international headlines — Somali pirates storming commercial vessels and holding their crews for ransom — and turns it into high-stakes human poker. It’s the second feature from the young writer-director Tobias Lindholm, and it showcases his gift for tightly focused stories told without an ounce of fat. “A Hijacking” spreads over 134 agonizing days of captivity and gamesmanship, but it is never anything other than riveting.
Three men are at the center of the drama, but only two have any power. The MV Rozen, a Danish ship off the coast of East Africa, is on its way home with a seven-man crew when it is boarded by pirates — a scene the film doesn’t bother to show us, since Lindholm’s more interested in psychology and suspense than action. Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), the vessel’s English-speaking cook, is chosen as the liaison between the kidnappers and corporate headquarters in Copenhagen. It’s he who relays the ransom demands by phone from the pirate’s chief negotiator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), to the shipping company’s CEO, Peter (Soren Malling).
The pirates want $15 million. Peter, on the advice of a professional piracy consultant (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), offers $250,000. And so the long stare-down begins between the canny Omar and the ice-cold CEO, with the gradually fraying Mikkel caught between. With his bespoke suits, steel-rimmed glasses, and cropped white hair, Peter is the modern executive as fully-functioning shark, and we understand why he’s a success: In an early scene, he takes over a deal from a hapless assistant (Dar Salim) and gets his asking price within minutes.
“Think with your head, not with your heart,” advises the consultant, but does Peter have a heart? He has a conscience, it turns out, and an awareness that bad publicity can eventually turn a corporate board against a CEO. “A Hijacking” unfolds as a business drama with human lives as leverage, and Lindholm cuts evenly between scenes at the white-on-white Copenhagen offices and the deteriorating chaos on the ship.
As the cook — a man with a voice but no say — Asbaek cuts a shaggy and deeply sympathetic figure, caring for the ship’s ailing captain (Keith Pearson) while yearning to be reunited with his wife (Amalie Ihle Alstrup) and young daughter (Amalie Vulff Andersen). The dialogue in “A Hijacking” is in English, Danish, and Somali, but the latter is unsubtitled, and the pirates, while humanized, remain mysteries. They’re befriended by the captives at their peril, yet there’s a touching scene where a caught fish leads to a drunken banquet, crew and kidnappers bonding over a break in the tedium.
Who’s the enemy here? The Third World pirates who threaten murder for money, or the First World pirates who hang their employees out to dry? “A Hijacking” is too smart, too clear-eyed, to say. That Mikkel and his fellow crew members are pawns is obvious even to him, but Lindholm avoids political statements and lets the suspense bring any larger implications to light. This is how the powerless do business with the powerful, the movie says. This is the 21st-century global reality that Omar understands and Peter, too, and that the lowly ship’s cook learns the hardest way possible. “A Hijacking” tells a simple story whose ripples ultimately turn into tidal waves.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.