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Toronto Film Review: ‘Pioneer’

Toronto Film Review: ‘Pioneer’

Dim echoes of “The Conversation,” “The Parallax View” and other ‘70s conspiracy thrillers reverberate throughout “Pioneer,” a twisty tale of life and death under pressure during the early days of the ‘80s Norwegian oil boom. Helmer Erik Skjoldbjaerg (“Insomnia”) makes a game effort to sustain the sort of paranoia that percolated in the U.S.-made polyester-era suspensers that are his clear templates. But even though the pic is involving on a scene-to-scene basis, the final wrap-up is unsatisfying and the overall impact curiously muted. Magnolia faces a marketing challenge for specialty theatrical and VOD release.

Aksel Hennie (“Headhunters”) makes a credibly resourceful yet vulnerable hero as Petter, a veteran deep-sea diver. Unlike his similarly employed brother, Knut (Andre Eriksen), a more cautious family man, Petter comes across as a compulsive risk-taker. Both men sign up for a dangerous assignment when an international alliance of U.S. petroleum interests and Norwegian government officials plot construction of a pipeline capable of bringing oil drilled 500 meters below the icy North Sea to the Norwegian coast.

Early scenes skillfully trigger unease and amusement as the siblings and other job candidates (including a surly Yank played by Wes Bentley) are tested in a compression chamber, and monitored as they endure extreme reactions, such as hallucinations, to the kinds of extreme conditions they’ll be facing in the lower depths. But all the extensive pretesting proves inadequate to the task of avoiding disaster: During an actual deep-sea mission, a catastrophic accident occurs, Knut is killed, and an infuriated Petter finds that no one will accept responsibility for the tragedy, or even acknowledge that anything could have been done to avoid it.

The plot turns out to have something to do with an experimental supplement designed to help divers breathe easier, and something else to do with deep divides between American and Norwegian partners in the pipeline enterprise. Closing credits indicate that some story elements were based loosely (very loosely) on real-life events.

Despite its shortcomings, “Pioneer” remains modestly intriguing due to its ineffably old-school flavor: It’s a period thriller in which characters must rely more on instincts and deduction rather than high-tech gadgetry, even as they deal with technology that, in the context of their time, is cutting-edge modern. Nobody Googles or uses a smartphone here, but VCRs play key roles in revealing inconvenient truths. The final image of a brightly lit, floating oil-drilling rig recalls the magnificent mothership of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

More often than not, Petter finds info and incriminating evidence through the blunt-force approach of breaking and entering. And when bad guys use the compression chamber on him as a kind of enhanced interrogation technique, he must take a desperately improvised do-it-yourself approach to cure his decompression sickness in the pic’s most nerve-wracking sequence.

As the U.S. oil company exec who’s determined to damn the collateral damage and move full speed ahead, Stephen Lang is so transparently odious, even when doing his hearty best to appear affable, you half-expect to see bit players hosing away the slime he leaves in his wake. Oddly enough, however, his obvious villainy does little to make him seem more threatening than other likely suspects. Indeed, somewhere around the midway point, most viewers simply will assume that, except for Petter and maybe his brother’s widow, there’s really no one here who should be trusted.

Evocative lensing by Jallo Faber ups the suspense factor, especially when characters are in close quarters.

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