Sunday, November 30, 2014

Erik Skjoldbjærg's PIONEER proves a would-be paranoid thriller that ends up dead in the water

The unreliable narrator has a deserved place in the history of cinema. But when everything he's surrounded by -- story, script, direction, performance -- seems equally unreliable, the viewer is in trouble. So it is with PIONEER, the new film from Erik Skjoldbjærg, the Norwegian director who earlier gave us Insomnia (the original) and Prozac Nation, two other films with unreliable narrators. In Pioneer, however, the subject is the 1980s Norwegian oil boom due to the discovery of the dark and greasy substance under the North Sea, America's rather odd and little-known involvement in this, and maybe murder-made-to-look-accidental in order to sway control over the project from a small Scandinavian country to that of a rather large super-power.

Director Skjoldbjærg -- shown here, who also co-wrote the film, along with a quartet of other screenwriters -- offers up a tale rife with weirdness right off the bat, as we see a pair of deep-sea-diving brothers, assured but competitive, jockey for position in both life and work. The latter involves diving for the joint American/ Norwegian project team, led by Stephen Lang, in which a surly American diver (Wes Bentley, below, left) makes his presence felt, along with one of those brothers (André Eriksen, below, right).

Bad things happen almost immediately, and a cover-up appears to have begun. At least that is the opinion of the other brother, the actual star of the film, Aksel Hennie (below), the Norwegian actor who was so good in the lead role in Headhunters, and has pretty much made a career out of playing jumpy, bizarre, sometimes violence-prone characters (from his early Uno to the recent Hercules, in which he played, and very well, the crazy "hero" Tydeus.

Mr. Hennie begins the movie a little "off" and continues growing even farther afield until everyone and everything around him seems ready to pounce. This makes for some thrills and oddities but mostly it guarantees confusion and finally out-and-out silliness.

Really,  who among intelligent, thoughtful folk would not by now imagine American the Beautiful capable of some of the worst atrocities and hypocrisy currently going? So it is no big step to suppose us as the villains here. Mr. Lang (above) can be impressively nasty, as can Mr. Bentley, whom the screenwriters have seen fit not to give a shred of real character besides his nastiness. Why waste an actor like this in such a dismal role?

So we get chases, and break-ins, and murder, and betrayal, and near-death, and much else. To no avail. The plotting jerks from arbitrary to nonsensical and back again. If the villains here really wanted to succeed, our would-be hero wouldn't stand a prayer. Instead, they miss their opportunities (or for some dumb reason refuse to take them to their logical conclusion) time after time after time.

Eventually, you'll shrug your shoulders, crunch down in your seat to nod off or maybe visit the refreshment stand for something to keep you awake. There are rumors afoot that an American remake of this film is planned. Unless it turns out one hell of a lot better than this one, you've got to ask, why? (That's Mexican actress Stephanie Sigman, below, playing one of the several characterless women who also dot the movie.)

From Magnolia Pictures, in English and Norwegian with English subtitles, and running a long 111 minutes, Pioneer opens this coming Friday, in New York City at the Cinema Village, in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, and then in Florida, San Francisco and San Diego in the weeks to come. (You can view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here.) 

No comments: