Sunday, January 5, 2014

A HIJACKING (Kapringen, 2012)

Somali pirates are a great movie subject because, well, they're pirates. In the past two years global moviegoers have seen two distinct portrayals of their depredations. Americans are more familiar with Paul Greengrass's Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Phillips, but Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm (whose previous film was the prison flick R.) got to the topic first. Greengrass is admired for his semidocumentary style, but Lindholm's movie has more of a documentary look if only because his film, compared to a Hollywood project, shares most documentaries' budgetary constraints. Also, Greengrass is as much an action specialist as a stylist, and Kapringen is nothing like an action movie; it's intimate rather than spectacular. The two films can share the general subject because of the stark difference in each director's approach.

In Captain Phillips the pirates' boarding of the Maersk Alabama is arguably the year's most thrilling action sequence; in Kapringen the pirates' boarding of the MV Rozen is presented as a fait accompli. Captain Phillips aspires to short-term suspense as the captain and the pirates play a cat-and-mouse game during what feels like a very brief takeover of the Alabama, while the real subject of Kapringen is the slow-motion terror of tedium in captivity. In Phillips the pirate leader tries to entice the captain into compliance with the promise of quick negotiations, a quick payday for the pirates and a quick release for the captive crew, but Kapringen suggests that such a promise is false, or at least overly optimistic. The pirates in Phillips simply want to do business, and Kapringen shows us what that means. The pirates make a ransom demand ($15,000,000) and the ship's owners, only occasionally listening to the advice of their hired negotiation specialist, try to talk the number down beneath a mere million. The final figure of $3,800,000 is reached after months of captivity for the Rozen crew. We endure this mostly from the viewpoint of the ship's Danish cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), who has a wife and kid at home looking for answers from the employers who fancy themselves hardball negotiators, who can tell the family that Mikkel is OK after a nightmare negotiation out of Ron Howard's Ransom, with the CEO's "Don't fuck with me!" raving answered with the sound of gunshots on the ship. The potential heartlessness of the people who have to pay ransoms is a subject Captain Phillips, for all its other virtues and its stated concern with the rat race forced on everybody, seems happy to avoid.

But Kapringen isn't primarily a jeremiad against corporations. Lindholm is as much interested in the exhausted camaraderie, somewhat sort of Stockholm Syndrome, that develops between captives and pirates, and in the cycles of frustration and plain boredom that sometimes drive casual cruelty. At one moment pirates may point rifles at the back of Mikkel's head; in another they'll join in a chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" in honor of Mikkel's daughter.

The results are nearly as suspenseful as in Captain Phillips, each picture earning its suspense in different ways. Because of the duration of the Rozen's ordeal, Kapringen is more horrific in a suffocatingly intimate way, while Mikkel's realistic helplessness raises the stakes (and our frustration with the suits) during the negotiation scenes. Lindholm's low-key direction can't compete with Greengrass's spectacular intensity in pure-cinema terms, but Kapringen and Captain Phillips prove to be quite complementary movies that could co-exist nicely as a double feature without either seeming redundant. Piracy off the Horn of Africa is a subject that may yet be far from exhausted.

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