Pioneer (Pioner): Film Review

Norwegian Film Institute
It's an uphill battle for the protagonist and the movie after an early highlight at 500 meters below sea level.

Aksel Hennie and Wes Bentley star in Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbaerg's deep-sea diving thriller that will be remade by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The shady U.S. involvement in the nascent Norwegian oil industry is the intriguing backdrop of the early 1980s-set thriller-drama Pioneer (Pioner), from filmmaker Erik Skjoldbaerg (Prozac Nation, the original Insomnia).

Though technically quite an achievement and well-acted by a cast that’s spearheaded by local star Aksel Hennie (Max Manus) and Wes Bentley, the film’s screenplay, cooked up by no less than five credited screenwriters, doesn’t manage to do more than simply ping-pong between increasingly smaller-feeling set-pieces and exposition, never becoming the character drama, white-knuckle thrill ride or -- even better! -- smart combination of both that the film clearly could be. This is good news for George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who recently acquired the remake rights and have the opportunity to give the material another go.

The film, which focuses on the deep-sea divers who needed to test the depths where an oil pipeline would be constructed, was released locally late last summer and managed an OK but not exactly impressive 170,000 admissions (for comparison: the big-budget Norwegian water epic of the year before that, the Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki, opened on the same date and sold 170,000 tickets in its first week). However, Pioneer was widely pre-sold and will be released April 11 in the U.K., while stateside rights went to Magnolia, which earlier distributed Headhunters, also with Hennie and from the same producers.

STORY: George Clooney, Grant Heslov to Produce Remake of 'Pioneer'

Pioneer, which is inspired by true events, opens with some archival footage that illustrates the discovery of oil, in the late 1970s, off the Norwegian coast. To get the liquid gold to land, a pipeline needs to be constructed on the seabed of the North Sea, for which experienced deep-sea divers who are also technicians are necessary. Since they don’t exist in Norway, a team from the U.S., which includes hotheaded diver Mike (Bentley) and oily supervisor Ferris (Stephen Lang), is brought in to train the locals. The U.S. company they work for also hopes to get a part of the potentially very lucrative pie, which could potentially create friction with the Norwegian government.

Petter (Hennie) and Knut (Andreas Eriksen) are two Norwegian brothers who have been selected to be trained with the Americans and a pivotal early scene shows them together in a pressure chamber that mimics the situation 500 meters below sea level, with all of them exposed to hallucinations and uncontrollable laughter and behavior, apparently the result of an experimental gas mixture.

Despite this, a verification dive in the actual North Sea is organized. In the film’s tensest and most nerve-wracking scene, Knut’s oxygen mask is smashed, which forces Petter to swim back to safety outside of the diving bell, carrying his knocked-out brother and without access to oxygen. The mise-en-scene is mesmerizing here and the score, by French duo Air, also expertly ratchets up the tension during the accident and its immediate aftermath. Skjoldbaerg then wisely drops the music entirely when CPR is required as the life of Knut hangs in the balance, creating a deafening silence that no-doubt mirrors the silence of the audience members collectively holding their breath.

But unfortunately, this highlight is only part of the story’s early setup and Pioneer never again comes close to this kind of seamless fusion of action, tension and suspense, with the screenplay turning the quest of Petter to understand what really happened and who is really responsible for the accident into a relatively tame conspiracy thriller that features some nice camerawork and low-level stuntwork -- chases by car and on foot, break-ins to secretly search for evidence… -- but never again matches the intensity of the film’s earlier set-piece.

Bentley and Lang are fine within their well-defined stock roles and seasoned veteran Hennie convincingly imbues Petter with the very dangerous combination of recklessness and stubbornness that is bound to get him into trouble, especially after it becomes clear that someone has got a lot to hide. But in terms of psychology, Petter and Knut remain frustratingly generic brothers that audiences have no particular investment in, since the film kicks off immediately in high gear and almost completely foregoes establishing scenes that might’ve given some insight into the characters before putting them in harm's way.

Though editor Frida Eggum Michaelsen’s pacing slows considerably after the early accident, or at least feels slower after the heart-stoppingly staged accident, there’s barely any time for character moments later on either, save a welcome few scenes with Knut’s wife (Stephanie Sigman). The screenplay also doesn’t make it clear enough to what extent, if any, some of the things Petter sees (or thinks he sees) might actually be delusions or visions like the ones the crew experienced in the opening. Instead of adding an additional layer of suspense, this ambiguity makes it simply harder to figure out for the audience what is really going on.

Jallo Faber’s supple camerawork and crisp colors and the extremely convincing production design by Karl Juliusson are the film’s technical standouts.

Production company: Friland Produksjon
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Wes Bentley, Stephanie Sigman, Stephen Lang, Andreas Eriksen, Jonathan Lapaglia, Ane Dahl Torp, Jorgen Langhelle, Erik Stubo, David A. Jorgensen, Endre Hellestveit, Janne Heltberg Haarseth
Director: Erik Skjoldbaerg
Screenwriters: Hans Gunnarsson, Kathrine Valen Zeimer, Cathinka Nicolaysen, Nikolaj Frobenius, Erik Skjoldbaerg
Producer: Christian Fredrik Martin
Executive producer: Asle Vatn
Director of photography: Jallo Faber
Production designer: Karl Juliusson
Music: Air
Costume designer: Anne Pedersen
Editor: Frida Eggum Michaelsen
Sales: TrustNordisk
No rating, 106 minutes.

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