Odd and eccentric, Kim Nguyen’s thriller nonetheless proves compelling


Dir/scr: Kim Nguyen. Canada/Belgium. 2018. 111mins

A defiantly odd thriller involving esoteric subject matter, The Hummingbird Project tells a familiar story of ambition and greed with enough eccentricity that the movie’s strangeness becomes one of its chief attributes. Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård commit fully as cousins hell-bent on getting rich in the stock market by building a super-fast cross-country fibre-optic cable — a quest that proves more challenging for them and far wonkier for the audience than initially expected. And yet, writer-director Kim Nguyen’s faith in his weird, cynical vision proves sufficiently compelling, even when the characters’ peculiarities turn tiresome.

Hayek has a blast as Hummingbird’s antagonist, pumping as much life into Eva’s cartoon-y lines as she can

Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, the movie will benefit from the star power of Eisenberg and Skarsgård, not to mention a villainous turn from Salma Hayek. Hummingbird’s juggling of genres — thriller, heist movie, family drama, character study, social commentary — may attract adventurous viewers, although it could prove challenging to marketers trying to condense the film into a poster.

Eisenberg plays Vincent, who convinces his computer-savvy cousin Anton (Skarsgård) that they should quit their jobs at a high-powered New York trading company, run by Eva Torres (Hayek), to go into business for themselves. Their plan: construct a thin but reliable cable that runs from Kansas to New Jersey that can receive trading information milliseconds faster than the competition, allowing them and their clients to make millions.

For those not familiar with high-frequency trading or other aspects of the stock market, Hummingbird refuses to simplify its characters’ milieu. But the strategy pays off for Nguyen (War Witch), who in some ways wants Vincent and Anton’s plan to be abstruse, underlining how in our modern age untold fortunes can be acquired simply by accessing data a millisecond faster. There’s an unreality to their scheme — just random numbers on a computer screen — that speaks to the cold efficiency of the operation.

Further highlighting the joylessness of their ambition is a series of bizarre obstacles that cross their paths, including nervous investors, obstinate land owners who don’t want cable laid under their property, problems with Anton’s computations to shave a single millisecond off their system’s data speed, and an unexpected serious illness. And that’s not even accounting for Eva, who fights back by devising a counter-strategy that will potentially render their new cable obsolete.

In films like The Social Network, Eisenberg has depicted driven, not wholly likable protagonists, and so his work as Vincent may not feel that far removed from past portrayals. But as Hummingbird rolls along, the depth of Vincent’s relentless ambition becomes starker, and the Oscar-nominated actor unapologetically reveals his character’s every desperate, devious tendency, resulting in a brazen performance that willingly strains credibility. And yet, Eisenberg’s tight jaw and dark eyes communicate all the hidden reasons why he needs this plan to work.

If anything, Skarsgård is even more over-the-top as a socially awkward programmer who has spent most of his life being browbeaten by his cousin. Anton’s objectives seem less materialistic than Vincent’s — he just wants to design a superior product — but although Anton’s quirky behaviour can feel invented rather than organic, Skarsgård’s vulnerability elicits our sympathy.

Hayek has a blast as Hummingbird’s antagonist, pumping as much life into Eva’s cartoon-y lines as she can. Like Vincent and Anton, she operates in a world in which millions of dollars are at stake — although everything is so theoretical that those unseen fortunes could simply be a figment of their imagination. As the double-crosses and twists unspool, Nguyen very consciously seems to be commenting on the ugliness that emerges in people when money is on the line. The Hummingbird Project teaches that old lesson in a strange, new (and mostly satisfying) way.

Production companies: Elevation Pictures, Item 7, Belga Productions, HanWay Films, Automatik Entertainment

US sales: CAA, filmsales@caa.com/ International sales: HanWay Films, tg@hanwayfilms.com and info@hanwayfilms.com

Producer: Pierre Even

Production design: Emmanuel Fréchette

Editing: Arthur Tarnowski, Nicolas Chaudeurge

Cinematography: Nicolas Bolduc

Music: Yves Gourmeur

Main cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek, Michael Mando