The last year or so has been a hell of a time for actor Alexander Skarsgård, who seems to average a movie every other month, including the Netflix original Hold the Dark and the AMC miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, both last year. Also this month, he’s featured in The Aftermath and soon we’ll see him as a fictional Canadian Prime Minister in the Charlize Theron-Seth Rogen political comedy Long Shot. With many of these roles, he seems determined to move away from the handsome leading man parts he seemed almost born to play and instead go for oddball types or characters who are otherwise challenging to like—perhaps no more so than his role in this week’s The Hummingbird Project, in which he plays Anton Zaleski, a brilliant electrical engineer and all-around technical wizard who joins forces with his cousin Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) to run a fiber-optics line from Kansas City to New York in order to become the fastest players in the high-frequency trading game.
From writer/director Kim Nguyen (War Witch), The Hummingbird Project may not sound like a conventional thriller, and it certainly isn’t. So why should you care? Because this sector of the trading world is so cutthroat that companies have people thrown in jail if a competitor hints at having even a millisecond’s edge on them, because that small fraction of time could mean hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a day. And the prospect of losing that amount of money makes people insane. The two men begin the film working for a company run by the cutthroat Eva Torre (Salma Hayek), but the second they realize they have found a way to shave a small amount of time from the trading time achieved with her company, they jump ship and begin buying up portions of land so that they can build a cable that runs in a straight line to New York. As soon as people (especially Eva) figure out what the Zaleskis are up to, they start tapping their tech geniuses to shave time off their own trades as well.
Obviously, we’re dealing with factors—time and money—that we can’t actually see, which puts the burden of creating drama out of this scenario on the very capable shoulders of these actors, who bring such a sense of urgency to every moment of the film that it’s difficult not to get caught up. While Eisenberg plays your typical fast-talking wheeler-dealer, Skarsgård plays Anton as a social misfit (complete with a severe case of male pattern baldness) who can barely communicate outside of talking about specs and codes. We see him on the phone to his wife and daughter, and he seems almost normal in those moments, but being away from them while he and Vincent travel the country following the line’s construction progress wears on him severely. The cousins’ partnership is the key to any moment in the film that works. They aren’t easy characters to like—I don’t think I’d ever want to share a meal with either of them—but together they have something that resembles chemistry.
Another key player in this story is the Vincents’ loyal project manager, Mark Vega (Michael Mando, “Better Call Saul”), who gets so caught up in the project’s success that he loses sight of the fact that by the time they finish the line, it may already be obsolete. I also really enjoyed the presence of Johan Heldenbergh as an Amish leader who refuses to sell a small tract of his property to the Zaleskis because he doesn’t believe the world needs to move any faster. And speaking of fast, The Hummingbird Project moves at an inspired clip, so even if you don’t end up enjoying the film, I’m guessing you won’t find it boring.
I’m not really sure what the moral of this story is, but I did enjoy the chance to watch these incredible performers really inhabit these roles, share victories and defeats, go through legal and medical troubles, and go from the most admired to most hated men in business in the blink of an eye. The movie isn’t for everyone, but if you collect great performances the way I do, there’s a lot here to admire.
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