Director Erik Skjoldbjærg never met a migraine he didn’t love. Whether his protagonists’ headaches, dizzy spells, and hallucinations are caused by the Norwegian midnight sun (Insomnia) or, as in the riveting new thriller Pioneer, deep-sea diving, their cranial torture becomes ours, flooding the screen. So does their mounting paranoia.
Petter (Aksel Hennie), a diver hired by a Norwegian-American crew to help build an underwater oil pipeline, has plenty of reasons to be paranoid. During a 500-meter plunge, he passes out and — according to his superiors — inadvertently causes the death of his brother and partner. As he struggles to clear his name, he discovers that a surveillance tape of the dive has been stolen, and that debilitating gas may or may not have been administered to him and fellow divers. Then, his friends start mysteriously vanishing or dying.
The tension never lets up. The training sequences, in which the crew is exposed to deafening cabin pressure, are as perilous as the smothering underwater missions. Skjoldbjærg takes blurriness to a whole new level, often shooting his already jittery close-ups through industrial pipes and mesh wire. And cinematographer Jallo Faber pulls off a scorcher of a shot: a vessel explosion glimpsed from deep underwater.
Pioneer will be the most emotionally resonant for those who lived through Norway’s oil boom in the late 1970s, a phenomenon that instilled newfound wealth in the country but also left many divers with lifelong mental deficiencies. Still, Hennie, a fierce, unkempt actor in full-on Jon Voight mode — bushy mustache, shambling gait, receding hairline, watery-blue eyes as sly as they are wistful — will have everyone emphatically rooting for Petter.