Pioneer is a tense 2013 Norwegian thriller which once again shows that Nordic Noir continues to lead the way when it comes to edge of your seat dramas. Using the real-life North Sea gas exploration in the 1970s as a stepping stone, Erik Skjoldbjærg’s paranoia-fuelled thriller feels like it could have been made in the decade that it was set.
Aksel Hennie (Headhunters) plays Petter, Norwegian deep sea diver who feels there is a conspiracy behind the mysterious death of his brother Knut (André Eriksen) a diver. The gas exploration is set to score the Norwegian government and their US sponsors billions of dollars. However, Petter throws this into trouble when he refuses to make further dives until the accident is properly investigated.
Skjoldbjærg’s film features some impressive (and claustrophobic) underwater photography sequences that really ratchet-up the tension (think James Cameron’s The Abyss). However, the excitement isn’t just relegated to the deep sea moments – there are also some impressive moments above water too. Aksel Hennie gives Petter some string emotional ticks as the diver who is literally out of his depth. Meanwhile Wes Bentley and Stephen Lang portray the American money men who are eager to see the whole endeavour go off without a hitch.
Pioneer fails in only one area – the conspiracy theory never really feels that wide reaching. Petter thinks that it could go further up the food chain into the realm of politics, but there’s never the possibility that Petter wants to break out and show the scope of the situation. Everything seems relegated to a handful of people and while that may keep the stakes high on an emotional level, it never feels like a true conspiracy. It’s hard to call that a flaw, but when you’re dealing with conspiracy theories, there’s no such thing as far-fetched.
Pioneer works as a close-quarters thriller, with fine cinematography and a strong performance by Aksel Hennie. Erik Skjoldbjærg has delivered a tense and claustrophobic thriller that works best when it feels confined below the water. It’s an enjoyable effort that has a good pay-off, but it’s a shame the stakes weren’t a little higher.