Pioneer, the Nordic thriller from director Erik Skjoldbjaerg, proves, if nothing else, why Scandinavian countries are amongst the best purveyors of both literary and filmic noir. Here is an exercise in unrelenting suspense that uses its claustrophobic environment to create an air of palpable unease which lingers long after it has finished.
Petter (Aksel Hennie) and his brother Kurt (André Eriksen) are commercial divers laying petroleum pipelines in the North Sea, during the Norwegian Oil Boom of the 1980s. Whilst on a dive a tragic accident occurs resulting in the death of Kurt. Returning to dry land Petter is wracked with guilt, leading him to begin investigations into the unfortunate events which befell his brother. Unfortunately his enquiries arouse the suspicions of some very powerful people, who will stop at nothing to prevent him finding out what really happened in the murky and icy depths of the North Sea. The deeper Petter digs the more hostility he meets with from the authorities, eventually leading him to realise that what happened hundreds of feet beneath the ocean may not have been as accidental as he was initially made to believe.
Pioneer is a film which haunts your mind for a number of different reasons – from its sense of isolation on a myriad of levels and chill air that permeates every aspect of the film, to its Nordic setting and all too frightening but wholly believable premise.
There are several factors why the countries of Northern Europe – not least Norway where this film’s proceedings play out – stand alone in the genre of noir thriller which has become so popular in recent years. The frozen landscapes, stark weather and subzero temperatures which – on the surface – lend these places a surreal magic, also add to the hostile undercurrents that frequently drive the narrative of the stories which unfold there. Such is the case with Pioneer. Here there seems little change between the pitch black and fathomless environment where Petter and Kurt find themselves beneath the sea, and the bleakness of Petter’s life back home as he battles against the increasingly harsh human forces that seem to thwart him at every turn.
It’s these forces which are one of the most disturbing aspects of the film. The figures which take the recognisable form of an archetypal corrupt ‘hierarchy’ who will stop at nothing (even murder) to achieve their ends, could so easily have lost bite by their stereo-typicalness. The fact that the story is based on real events however lends it a credibility which only adds to its frisson of fear – that these people clearly think they can, quite literally, get away with murder is both unsettling and enthralling. Though the cast overall is strong, it’s Hennie – best known for his starring role in the adrenalin pumping Headhunters (2011) – who carries the film and the viewer’s attention. With marvellous believability and complete conviction he balances the fine line between cool collectiveness and growing hysteria as the increasingly desperate and bewildered Petter.
The claustrophobia of being lost in a seemingly endless natural environ – whether in space as recently seen in Gravity (2013), or with Pioneer’s opposite extreme beneath the sea – must be amongst man’s greatest fears. If as here, the resulting sense of panic and isolation only intensifies upon reaching the apparent safety of solid ground, then that’s when the real nightmare begins.