16 years on from Writer/Director Erik Skjoldbjærg’s breakthrough film Insomnia and after a period of making nothing much (except 2001’s Prozac Nation), Skjoldbjærg returns with his latest feature Pioneer, a thriller set around the commencement of Norway’s first deep-sea oil drilling program in the 1970s starring Aksel Hennie of 2011’s Headhunters. It’s a shame that we haven’t seen more from Skjoldbjærg during this period because while this film isn’t without its flaws, it stands as a pretty solid whodunit flick with a twist. It features a great script, some fantastic performances and a few spectacular set pieces and is probably worthy of a little more attention than it has received.
Surprisingly based on a true story, Pioneer begins as a fairly standard drama following two brothers/deep-sea divers, Petter (Aksel Hennie) and Knut (André Eriksen), as they prepare to be the first Norwegians to walk the sea bed at a depth of 500ft (a necessity to construct a deep-sea oil pipeline which will reap great profits for the Norwegian government). Unfortunately on the sea bed tragedy strikes when Knut is killed in an accident, leading Petter – who is certain a conspiracy is in play – on a journey to uncover the true course of events that led to his brother’s death.
Skjoldbjærg has a great track record with underwater scenes (see the pier scene in Insomnia), and Pioneer is no exception to the rule – the simulated deep sea diving footage here, while very reminiscent of James Cameron’s work on the Abyss, is spectacular. The first sequence (about 15 minutes into the film) perfectly conveys the serene majesty of the ocean depths; opening with a wide establishing shot, we’re then treated to a first-person perspective of the sea floor. This is followed up with another video game-esque third person angle placing Petter in the context of his surroundings, and then a close-up on his face. The film cuts back to the control room, reminding us of the point of this sequence before moving to an extreme longshot of Petter and the submarine he emerged from (an image co-opted for the film’s Norwegian theatrical poster). This angle that allows us to bask in the beauty of this oceanic construct a final time before moving away from visual spectacle and back into the plot.
Pioneer also does a fantastic job of capturing the 70s film aesthetic through the use of colour grading and (what looks like) accurately simulated TV and video surveillance footage. It’s refreshing to watch a film that visually feels like one made in the era it is set. The cinematography is also impressive, often moving from steady tripod shots in slower moments to shaky, tense handheld camera usage in its more Action-oriented sequences with great proficiency.
As with Insomnia, themes of denial and guilt permeate the film especially in the feature’s latter half, that focuses heavily on a man coming to grips with the death of a loved one. In a clear throwback to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Albatross imagery is one of the film’s more defined visual motifs, becoming more constant in this second half. During the second and third act I kept asking myself if something deeper was at play here; on the surface the plot seems to follow a man’s descent into madness, sparked by the death of his brother at his own hand – but on a deeper level I kept reading a veiled commentary of the post-9/11 truther movement – particularly their search for a secondary culprit that may not exist – but maybe I’m just way off. Regardless, Skjoldbjærg has a lot to say about society’s obsession with the possibility of sinister forces at work, when often the truth is actually rather transparent. By the time the credits commenced, I was unsure of whether we were still receiving a truthful account of events or watching everything filtered through the eyes of a madman – an entertaining filmic device, even if its use was fairly subtle.
Who knew that the backroom politics of something as mundane as deep sea oil drilling could be so enthralling? While Skjoldbjærg’s film does little to break away from well established, tried and true thriller clichés – something which is ultimately its downfall, the way in which he handles his content and the quality of the performances in his film make Pioneer well worth a watch and cast the film as an early favourite of the Scandinavian Film Festival program.
Palace Verona will host a Q&A with Jonathan LaPaglia after their screening of Pioneer on Saturday the 19th of July at 4.15pm. Alternatively, Pioneer will be screening sans Q&A on Saturday 12th at 4pm, Tuesday 15th at 8.30pm, and Sunday 27th at 4.30pm at Palace Norton Street, or Monday 14th at 6.45pm or Sunday 20th of July at 1.15pm at Palace Verona