Thursday 20 June 2019

The Hummingbird Project (Kim Nguyen, 2018)

Director Kim Nguyen's eclectic filmography includes the likes of the DR Congo-set War Witch (which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) and the excellent, snow-drenched Two Lovers and a Bear, and it's the offbeat spirit of the latter which inhabits The Hummingbird Project.  The film's Belgian funding is reflected in the casting of Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh in a fine supporting role, but the film's two main stars are Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård, who play cousins attempting to install a long-distance fibre optic cable.  While the premise doesn't sound terribly exciting, The Hummingbird Project manages to be a consistently engaging movie, helped no end by the winning performances of two eminently watchable actors.

Vincent (Eisenberg) and Anton (Skarsgård) are employees of a stock trading company headed by the ruthless Eva (a scenery-chewing Salma Hayek).  The cousins have an idea of how they might make millions, if not billions, of their own, which involves running a cable, one that can transfer data at speeds greater than those of the existing network, all the way between Kansas and New York.  In order to achieve such a speed, the cable itself must carry virtually lossless data at breakneck pace and, more importantly, run in a straight line, which involves much drilling, not to mention negotiations with not-always-amenable landowners.  As the pair resign from Eva's company to pursue this secret project, their ex-boss is bent on discovering and disrupting their plans.  Vincent and Anton rope in the affable Mark (Michael Mando, so good as villain Vaas in Far Cry 3) to oversee the complicated drilling work, and the project receives considerable funding from the less affable - but extremely wealthy - Bryan Taylor (Frank Schorpion). 

Not too far into the film, there's a development involving Vincent which instils a fresh urgency to the cousins' project; Eisenberg brings real pathos to his role, and while his fast-talking, perma-smoking, jittery frontman may fool those around him, the viewer is privy to the pain which lies behind those haunted eyes.  In contrast, Skarsgård's Anton is an introverted, socially awkward type who dreams of the country life, yet he seems quietly fulfilled by his family in a way which highlights the hole in Vincent's existence; a touching scene sees Vincent ask if it would be OK if he took Anton's kids out for ice cream once the mammoth project is completed.  Anton's affirmative response may appear casual, even throwaway, but there's a real sense that he knows just how much this simple act of belonging would mean to his cousin.

For all its poignancy, The Hummingbird Project isn't scared to mix things up a bit by throwing in some well-judged humour, with a comic highlight being the spontaneous victory dance performed by the normally buttoned-down Anton.  The way in which this moderately serious tale is punctuated with moments of levity draws parallels with the work of Nguyen's compatriot Denys Arcand, whose The Decline of the American Empire is explicitly recalled in a scene in which Eisenberg's character visits the bathroom.  You suspect that the great Arcand, whose latest film The Fall of the American Empire continues his examination of the degrading effect of money on civilisation, would approve of Nguyen's own idiosyncratic take on the race to the bottom.

Darren Arnold