Review: The Hummingbird Project

by Andrew Parker

With his most assured film to date, The Hummingbird Project, Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen takes a potentially numbing, dull, and inscrutable premise and mines it for a great amount of drama and tension. A look at the greedy world of high finance, humanity’s relationship to the natural and spiritual world around them, and the psychology and physiology of stress all at the same time, The Hummingbird Project is a refreshingly original and well acted curiosity that would make for an unlikely, but satisfying double bill with Jordan Peele’s vastly different Us, which also comes out this weekend in Canadian cinemas.

Vincent and Anton Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård, respectively) are cousins working in the financially lucrative, fast paced world of high frequency trading. Tired of watching their demanding, greedy, and nonplussed boss (Salma Hayek) reaping all the benefits and rewards from their hard work (particularly Anton’s coding), the cousins strike out on their own with an ambitious, risky, and possibly illegal venture of their own. Betting that Anton can create a new line of code that could shave a surprisingly valuable millisecond off the amount of time it takes to receive stock trading numbers travelling between a server in Kansas and the New York Stock Exchange, Vincent starts selling people on the idea of constructing an underground fibre-optic cable line through several states (including Appalachian mountains and swamps) that could facilitate such an ambitious goal. If they succeed, the scheme could net them an extra $500 million per year, not to mention the untold millions they could make from allowing other brokers and traders to use their codes and cables. If it fails, they’ll undoubtedly lose everything and possibly go to prison for double-crossing their former employer. There’s also a finite amount of time that the line will even be profitable for them. For all their hard work, construction, and hustling, they’ll only have a year or two at best before the march of technology renders their plan obsolete.

Writer-director Nguyen (Rebelle, Two Lovers and a Bear, Eye on Juliet) has put a great deal of research into the scheme at the heart of The Hummingbird Project, and it’s a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker that he can make such an idiosyncratic premise into something emotionally understandable and captivating. There’s plenty of techno-jargon being trotted out and several scenes that are nothing more than logistical problem solving exercises, but it’s how the characters react in relation to their jobs that matter most. The Hummingbird Project isn’t so much a film about a couple of Wall Street wolves looking for the next big score, but rather one about two ambitious people rapidly coming apart on mental and physical levels.

Nguyen places his primary characters – one of them patently unlikable, but strangely sympathetic and the other likable, but morally flawed – amid gorgeous natural wonders and fascinating side characters that they pay no notice of due to their hypervigilant goals. Vincent is a motor-mouthed, “solutions focused” charlatan who plays fast and loose with the truth; exactly the type of role that Eisenberg excels at, and his proficiency for playing such a brilliant cad makes The Hummingbird Project a natural fit. Skarsgård gets a role that’s a bit more against type as a balding, genteel, and increasingly stressed out family man whose fragile psyche is coming unravelled before the audience’s eyes. Vincent pushes Anton past his logical mental and physical limits, but there’s also a sense of protection between the cousins that’s unwavering.

These characters are fascinating both together and apart, and their problems might not always be classically entertaining, but they’re consistently thoughtful, engaging, and realistic, especially when a twist arises that gives Vincent every possible reason to worry about his future. These guys aren’t “too big to fail,” and there’s a sense early on that they probably will. Even though Hayek’s smartly written and played executive is ostensibly the villain, everything she says about her former employees is mostly true. These are characters wrestling with their inner demons more than the external forces that constantly threaten to delay or derail their opportunity at greatness. Nguyen doles out little character moments throughout like clues in a thriller, but The Hummingbird Project doesn’t fit that genre description in a traditional sense. If anything, it’s a keen character study built around the psychology of stress and how the pursuit of greater riches might be more damaging than they’re worth.

Nguyen also creates an exceptional audience surrogate and voice of reason in the form of the Zaleski’s chief contractor, Mark. Played with note perfect precision by Michael Mando in the actor’s best big screen performance to date, the character offers an intelligent blue collar counterpoint to the main characters’ avarice and status climbing. Not only does Mando provide The Hummingbird Project with an everyman capable of keeping the story’s technological flights of fancy in check, but also with a figure that delicately sounds out what the audience and filmmaker thinks of its characters without every fully passing judgment on them. It’s a remarkably warm turn from Mando, and a character that saves the movie from a potentially cold and distancing tone.

Nguyen has always gravitated to stories that ask questions about how human beings and their sometimes petty and sometimes deadly serious problems are connected to the natural world around them, and The Hummingbird Project feels like an accomplished distillation of his favourite narrative themes. Thanks to a remarkable cast and Nguyen’s finest script to date, The Hummingbird Project takes a premise that sounds as inviting as doing one’s taxes and turns it into disarmingly emotional and thoughtful. It’s definitely worth taking on this project.

The Hummingbird Project opens in theatres across Canada on Friday, March 22, 2019.

Check out the trailer for The Hummingbird Project:

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