© 2023
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Claustrophobic 'Pioneer' From A Land Suddenly Grown Rich

Aksel Hennie and Wes Bentley star as offshore divers in <em>Pioneer</em>.
Magnolia Pictures
Aksel Hennie and Wes Bentley star as offshore divers in Pioneer.

Given the times, the Norwegian thriller Pioneer is hardly the first thriller in recent memory todelve into the poisonous fallout from a nation's suddenly acquired wealth. But it may be the first to conduct business from the floor of the noirishly cinematic North Sea, a roiling stretch of gray water where huge supplies of oil and gas were discovered off the coast of Norway in the 1980s. Trust me, this is not Bikini Bottom.

Expertly directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg (who made the original Insomnia, later remade by Christopher Nolan with Al Pacino and Robin Williams), Pioneer takes its cue from the thrillers of the 1970s. So it's less concerned with seeking the truth than with paranoia's nasty little habit of swelling to fill all available psychic space in the mind of any poor shlub who tries to take on Mighty Mammon. That's a daunting task under the best of circumstances, but it can turn deadly when undertaken from inside a pressure chamber 500 meters under the sea, where the Norwegian government, aided by American industry, means to lay a pipeline to the shore.

That's mostly where we find Petter (Aksel Hennie), an alpha deep-sea diver growing crazier by the hour as he tries to find out who or what is behind the apparently accidental death of his experienced brother Knut (Andre Eriksen) in what ought to have been a routine dive. The more Petter pokes his nose into standard procedure, the less standard it looks to him. Americans and Norwegian pols get bossy; fat envelopes change hands a lot. Colleagues slide between support and menace: one slips him a potentially incriminating videotape and pays a price; another may or may not be taking orders from foreign bodies; still another is blamed for the death of Knut, whose grieving widow (Stephanie Sigman) is mysteriously reluctant to join Petter in his bid for justice. Is an American diver (Wes Bentley, giving great scowl) trying to kill him or protect him?

Is a war between Big Government and Bigger Finance being waged over Petter's hot head? Pioneer is rooted in real events: The Norwegian divers, who may or may not have sustained neurological damage from the expedition, filed suit against the government; the dispute drags on today. But Skjoldbjaerg nimbly juggles realism with genre, with Polanski a powerful influence. Petter's psychic anxiety and confusion recall Chinatown, while Pioneer's palette owes much to the murky, slate-gray ambiance of The Ghost Writer. The underwater sequences stun and terrify — nothing says claustrophobia quite like two weeks in a pressurized diving bell with someone you can't necessarily trust — and there's almost as much moisture and terror on land to drive Petter round the bend.

Like Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes, Petter is a crusader crossed with a rube who doesn't understand the forces he's up against. The movie's take on human nature is only a shade less jaundiced than Polanski's. Watching Petter grow ever more unhinged by the ambiguity of his quest, one thinks of Noah Cross' dictum that in the right time and place, everyone is capable of anything. Where powerful interests are at play, Petter discovers, it can be awfully hard to tell whodunit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.