Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg has been making feature films since the turn of the millennium, but the closest he’s come to international recognition came indirectly in the form of Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, an American revision of his modestly successful debut. Since then, he’s been dipping in and out of episodic television and hasn’t managed a feature since 2010’s Nokas, a dramatization of a bloody 2004 bank robbery in Norway. His latest, Pioneer, goes further back into his country’s recent history in reconstructing the Norwegian oil boom of the late 1970s and early ’80s, during which the government sent drilling companies into the North Sea to excavate newly discovered oil reserves. Sharing the experiential intensity and muted palette of Nokas, while focusing on a single man’s obsessive quest to uncover the truth behind one of the operation’s casualties, Pioneer suggests the moody, ripped-from-the-headlines procedurals of Michael Mann and David Fincher.
Petter (Aksel Hennie), a diving professional from a working-class neighborhood in Oslo, seems a spiritual cousin to Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith and The Insider’s Jeffery Wigand: Scrappy and unrelenting, he has a habit of angering authority figures en route to a hidden reality that becomes increasingly elusive as layers of corporate bureaucracy peel back. What’s more, there’s a significant personal toll: Petter’s brother and diving companion, Knut (André Eriksen), dies in an early mission under ambiguous circumstances. After this catastrophe, filmed so vividly by Skjoldbjærg with a mix of underwater and control-room perspectives that it could constitute its own self-contained short film, Pioneer clings to Petter as he insistently interrogates the operational slipups that led to his brother’s premature passing and protests a repeat mission until the guilty comes forth.
It’s clear, however, from the prevailing sense of administrative indifference and just-doing-my-job pragmatism among the mission technicians (all of which registers for Petter as conspiratorial), that there’s no easy, or single, source of culpability. And so Pioneer progresses, incident by incident, fact by fact, supporting character by supporting character, in a maddening waltz around the desired revelation. Clad in the same brown sweater and corduroy coat for more than half the movie, his already balding hairline seemingly thinning from stress by the minute, Petter is the perfect subject for this exhausting investigation. Whether sneaking into half-lit backrooms to retrieve stowed-away gas canisters, sprinting through drab coastal barracks away from suspicious pursuers, or pushing 90 in his shabby jeep throughout Oslo’s forested outskirts, the man exudes a resilient anger that can’t be snuffed out by the straight-faced deflections of his colleagues and superiors. Hennie is an unselfconscious enough presence to be able to use this anger as a physical engine without ever resorting to paranoid histrionics.
Pioneer’s greatest asset, and another trait it shares with Mann and Fincher’s work, is a careful attention toward the particulars of its milieu in a way that doesn’t call attention to those period touches. The film matches the quotient of moustaches, thick-rimmed glasses, and earth-toned blazers from Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy without ever getting Argo-level ostentatious about it. Its cinematography, from Jallo Faber, recalls both Alfredson’s film in its impressively detailed widescreen master shots and lived-in ambiance of cigarette haze and any number of Fincher films in the manner in which it describes locations (specifically, the labyrinthine sea vessel) in stylishly omniscient camera movements. Skjoldbjærg also has a knack for embellishing upon sensory details: in the way bodies move underwater, the way the sea floor clouds up when struck by a human foot, and the lovely cool-blue aura of a single diver light illuminates total darkness. If Pioneer starts to feel at times like a standard corporate conspiracy flick, complete with the typically cynical message that some subservience to the manipulative trickery of the system is unavoidable and even necessary to progress positively, it’s these atmospheric touches that give it its formidable weight.