Worse things happen at sea
For the English-speaking critic, the comparison between 2012 Danish prize-winner A Hijacking and 2013 American prize-courting Captain Phillips is as easy to make as it is spurious and unenlightening. The one is a psychological drama about the unfeelingness of corporations and hostage negotiations, the other is a politically-minded high-energy action film, and similarities of scenario aside, there's absolutely no reason to compare them. So I shall hereafter not do so.
A Hijacking is the sophomore effort and first broadly-available film by director Tobias Lindholm, who's a bit better-established as a screenwriter; he co-wrote Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, and appears to have picked up a few stylistic tricks in doing so. For if there's any easy, reductive way to describe A Hijacking in generic terms, it would be as "a Scandinavian realist thriller". It's not quite as ascetic in its realism as the most Dogmetic of Vinterberg's movies, but still palpably free of Hollywoodised gloss and polish, to the degree where it's hard to say that it really qualifies as a "thriller" at all, except that nothing else seems to work. The film concerns the Rozen, a Danish cargo ship attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia; it divides its attention between two protagonists, one onboard, one back in Denmark. The man on the boat is Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), the ship's cook, who we first meet shortly before the attack looking haggard and worn and eager to get the hell back home. The man back at the corporate offices is Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), an executive selected to be the company's primary negotiator, speaking with the pirate ambasador Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) over a crappy phone connection and over fax. With hideousness slowness - the number of days that the film proposes for the total length of the hijacking is stupefying - Ludvigsen and Omar hash out a deal, as the hostages grow increasingly frayed and dead-eyed.
If I had to come up with an adjective for this, I'd go with "sinewy". There is precious little wasted in A Hijacking, a film about one agonising process stretched out by corporate deliberations on both sides (the Somali pirates take on the aura of an unseen bureaucracy), with virtually every line and narrative beat focused only on how that process plays out. It's not a movie that wastes time on melodrama (Mikkel's family is pulled in for the most pragmatic of narrative reasons, but never for any kind of weepy "the family waits" moments), nor on broad concepts of How the World Works and how this story Reveals Truths of That World. Perhaps, arguably, there is something of greater social import in its implicit themes of corporate coldness versus human passion: the central conflict of the Denmark-bound plotline is between Peter's heavily rational approach to crisis management as a professional being coached by a hostage negotiation expert (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), and his increasing frustration at being impotent to actually do anything as days turn into weeks and eventually months. Malling is deliriously good in these scenes, capturing all the tightly-coiled tension of his character's situation such that you can almost watch him shaking from nervous energy at points.
And of course, there's another conflict as well, between the men in Denmark and the men in the boat, who grow increasingly ragged and weathered as the story crawls on, eventually forming a kind of comradship with their captors that has less to do with Stockholm Syndrome and more with a sense of "fuck it, we're miles at sea, might as well do things to pass the time". I will confess to finding the hostage half of the movie not as compelling, largely because there's no character as sharply and originally defined as Peter (Mikkel is a good Everyman, but not a particularly groundbreaking figure - not to compare it to Captain Phillips like I said only a jackwad would do, but he's not as compelling a "captive human under stress" figure as that movie's titular character), but it's still pleasingly straightforward and free of trumped-up action: it is the most realistic, unforced part of a most realist motion picture. In fact, all of the acutely "tense" moments in this laconic thriller take place in the offices: wondering why the phones went dead, trying to decode a cryptic fax, wondering if somebody just got shot on the boat. It's kind of astonishing how much tension Lindholm is able to scrape out of everyday officework being applied to a life-or-death situation. Even the simple trick in the audio, in which the speakerphone that Peter uses to talk with Omar introduces an echo so that everything Peter says is repeated and muffled, adds considerably to the feeling of ominous frustration.
I presume that there exists a viewer for whom all of this low-key, realist genre work would come across as boring rather than excitingly unconventional and fresh, but I think most of us would agree that the film's ability to keep the stakes so high and potent even in the face of the bureaucratic shuffling that drives the story. Lindholm isn't quite able to sell the chronology as well as the film might need: other than the use of title cards, nothing actually makes this seem like it couldn't be two or three weeks as easily as anything longer. And that saps the film of some of the ravaging hopelessness that might have given the scenes on the boat a little more impact.
Still, whatever is or isn't great and whatever is or isn't nail-biting and exciting to people who need more or less obvious thrills from their thrillers, this much is undeniably true: the last several minutes are dynamite. After a film that has been so good at contrasting bureaucratic wrangling with human suffering the last few story beats in A Hijacking are strictly about the human fallout from traumatic experiences, and it's like being punched in the gut for several minutes running. In the absolute best way, of course. The film isn't perfect, but anything that could earn that climax is getting a whole lot of things right, and pridely ekes out its place as an entirely essential viewing experience.