No one could blame you if you felt you'd had your fill of films featuring mensch-y cargo-ship crews versus Somali pirates. But if Captain Phillips didn't totally top you off, consider making time for A Hijacking (Magnolia DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming). Its Danish cast can't rival Tom Hanks for everyman charisma, nor can writer/director Tobias Lindholm match the handheld kineticism that Paul Greengrass brings to his smuggled-in action, but Lindholm's after a slightly different—and possibly more powerful—effect.
This isn't to say that A Hijacking doesn't open with a bit of cliché ahoy. The first few scenes so deliberately establish that ship's cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) is a sweetheart, a schlubby young beardo family man looking forward to making port and heading home in a few days, that it is all but ordained that Kalashnikov-waving Somali pirates must board the Rozen. But other early scenes have introduced Peter (Søren Malling), the flinty Copenhagen businessman who owns the Rozen, and who, Lindholm makes equally crystal clear, got to where he is by driving a hard bargain. The stage is set for an adventure in stasis.
Peter and a hired negotiation specialist start prepping to deal with the pirates' ransom demands. Mikkel cooks for the pirates, endures their threats, and frets. Neither side knows what's going on with the other. And even when Peter opens talks with the pirates' negotiator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), there are feints, disagreements, and posturing. Conditions on the ship deteriorate and food runs out. Stress grinds down the men on both ends of the satellite phone signal. Weeks pass, then months.
Despite his occasional dips into trope, Lindholm craftily limns globalism and its discontents by boiling the whole thing down to a few desperate men held hostage by this much money versus that much. Not only does Mikkel's fate hang on the goodwill of his remote, never-met employer, but so does the pirates' and Omar's. (Clearly more educated and less volatile than his employers, he nonetheless explodes when anyone associates him with them.) And, in perhaps Lindholm's deftest touch, Peter doesn't come off as a detached fat cat. His businessman's mind can't help but see the talks as yet more deal-making on one level, but when a particular gambit sparks a gunshot on the other end of the line, Malling's face captures a mini-suite of clay-footed human panic and dread. Lindholm flirts with cliché again near the end, but he comes through with a powerful, subtle drama that any cinephile or citizen of the world in the 21st century would do well to see.
One of 2013's most unique and powerful films also takes an unconventional look at seafaring commerce, though you wouldn't necessarily know it at first. Peering through the blackness, lit only by neon flashes of digital noise, you can barely make out hooded figures laboring over heavy machinery, its grinding the primary sound you hear. As the horizon tilts and chains haul some impossibly heavy burden, you begin to comprehend where you are: on a fishing vessel, somewhere on some dark patch of heaving ocean, in the world of Leviathan (Cinema Guild DVD and Blu-ray).
Directors Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel don't make traditional documentaries; even more so than in Castaing-Taylor's prior co-directorial effort, the sublime sheep-herding documentary Sweetgrass, there is no narrative, no characters, no meaningful dialogue. Instead, the filmmakers plunge you into the sensory assault of riding a steel tub across the bucking North Atlantic, hauling in mountains of fish in miles of netting and dredge line. Using a brace of cheap, waterproof GoPro video cameras, they give you a deck-level view of the sloshing, gasping catch; the bow of the boat crashing through the frigid rollers; and the howl of the winches and the wind (the use of sound here is almost as overwhelming and hallucinatory as the visuals). In one jaw-dropping sequence, one of the cameras catches an unbroken shot of both the detritus of the catch drifting past the boat's starboard side and, as the waves surge and ebb, the hundreds of seabirds jockeying for position aloft and gunning for the scraps.
While there is no narrative, per se, Leviathan does capture the forbidding conditions of the fishermen, including the evident dangers of the equipment on the deck and the monotony of fishing, both mechanical (shucking scallops by hand) and psychic (an extended shot of a slack-jawed fisherman on a break watching TV leads to the film's one wry joke—he's watching The Deadliest Catch). But as much respect as you gain for these men braving these conditions for a living, you also get a stem-to-stern portrait of fishing boat as floating charnel house. The streams of blood and heaps of discarded bycatch sinking in the wake, the skates butchered on camera for their flukes alone, all offer a visceral perspective on the violence and waste it takes to stock the seafood section of your local market. Despite its material austerity, Leviathan astonishes with its gravity and its cinematic riches.