Until 2005 or so, no one thought much about modern piracy of the high-seas variety. But then Somali pirates began attacking merchant ships with increasing frequency, seizing vessels and holding their crews hostage for outlandish sums. Danish director Tobias Lindholm's wiry, neatly crafted thriller A Hijacking wrests fact into the shape of believable fiction, although the movie is most remarkable for everything it doesn't show: We never see, for example, the pirates clambering aboard the victimized ship. One minute it's business as usual — the cook hustling about the galley, ascertaining just how the captain takes his coffee — and then, suddenly, the pirates are just there. Their almost vaporous appearance makes their presence especially sinister.
Lindholm frames his story through two key figures: the cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), who opens the movie by phoning his new wife, pre-highjacking, with the disappointing news that he's going to be home two days later than promised; and Peter (Soren Malling), the shipping company's straight-arrow CEO back home in Copenhagen. He's the guy who must negotiate by phone with the marauders, who employ an unnervingly smooth spokesperson, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar).
The pirates separate the small crew into two groups (one of which we hardly see again, a minor flaw) and begin breaking them down with bullying and deprivation: Mikkel and his compatriots aren't allowed to use the bathroom until day 25. Later, the pirates force Mikkel to call his wife, interrupting the call by barking orders at her.
Lindholm — who has made one previous feature and also co-wrote Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt — keeps A Hijacking spinning expertly between two poles: Mikkel's increasing emotional fragility and Peter's stalwart efforts to keep the negotiations cool, even when he begins losing his own. Asbaek brings an air of cautious joviality to the role of Mikkel. Even before his ordeal, we can sense that this cheerful character has a tender soul, although Asbaek plays that as a strength: Mikkel is dutiful and brave where it counts, but sometimes cracking, just a little, is the very thing that ensures your survival. And as Peter, Malling makes you care about the otherwise boring dude in the suit: With his stick-straight carriage and prim little smile, he comes off as a cold dollars-and-cents guy in the movie's early minutes, only to transform, as if via slow dissolve, into a principled businessperson who actually gives a damn about the people who help line his pockets. Then again, he cares because he's forced to: It takes a brutal hostage situation for him to recognize the worth of his employees.
Through it all, A Hijacking maintains its cinematic grandeur, balancing the open-sky thrill of being at sea with the claustrophobia that comes with being forced below deck for days at a time. In A Hijacking, the ocean, mysterious and unpredictable, is both old friend and enemy. But the greed of men is something else entirely: It's small, desperate and mean, wholly at odds with the majesty of the sea.