More art-house than action-adventure, Pioneer nonetheless kept us utterly gripped with intriguing plot developments, stunning underwater photography and a powerful central performance. There is, inevitably, an American re-make on the way but this multilingual Scandinavian film (with subtitles, no need to learn Norwegian) perfectly captures the feel of the times.
In common with many Scandinavian film and TV productions, Pioneer blends bewildering undercurrents of menace, sudden peaks of dramatic tension (which can themselves evaporate into thin air) and prolonged pauses for thought; hung moments of character contemplation. But this is not your standard Nordic noir police procedural with multiple murders and a charismatic detective. Instead it’s a very different kind of thoughtful thriller, more like A Hijacking than The Killing…
The setting is 1980s Norway at the start of the oil boom. The fierce competition between Norwegian and international oil companies to successfully build deep-sea pipelines provides the backdrop to a taut if atypical thriller. It’s claustrophobic in the extreme: dragging the viewer into the extended hell that is a tiny decompression chamber shared by three brawny blokes for weeks at a time. The film develops the theme of two very different types of pressure: that physical and emotional strain of working at lethal depths, and the commercial pressure to develop technical solutions that will guarantee massive financial rewards. Where these themes collide, people die.
The pioneers of the title are trying to work at extreme depths on the sea floor, using experimental breathing gases but still suffering weird hallucinations and ‘lost time’. Political wrangling between the supposedly collaborating American-Norwegian effort generate distrust, and culminate in a wrenchingly matter-of-fact fatal accident. There’s a strong suggestion that it was human error on the part of a diver which caused the catastrophe – which is personally shattering for him – and the rest of the film follows his efforts to uncover the truth, haunted by further hallucinations and distraught with guilt.
Meanwhile, the corporate types attempt to cover up the accident’s causes – and such is the film’s subtlety that we’re not sure if their activities extend to violence and murder, of it that’s a symptom of the diver’s neurological damage. The boundaries become… blurred.
All of which sounds grim, and in the main it is. But Pioneer is not without relief and resolution; the imaginary albatross is almost a comfort. And there are certainly some stunning and unexpected action sequences. The early sequences of deep-water diving are beautiful beyond expectation, and artfully capture the over-confident, almost naïve delight of the divers as they revel in an entirely new environment.
The plot also shows the Norwegian oil boom and its reputation for establishing that country’s social support system in an entirely new light.