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Film Reviews Review: The Hummingbird Project moves like the titular bird, stings like a bee

Jesse Eisenberg, left, as Vincent, and Alexander Skarsgard, right, as Anton in The Hummingbird Project.

The Orchard

  • The Hummingbird Project
  • Written and directed by: Kim Nguyen
  • Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Salma Hayek
  • Classification: 14A
  • 110 minutes

rating

Vincent Zaleski, a low-level Wall Street trader, is strolling away from a Chinese restaurant in downtown Manhattan with two other men after a dinner spent hashing out the finer details of an outlandish get-rich-quick scheme when he stops and takes a moment to frame their goal in simple terms. “Just think of it as David walking onto the floor of the stock exchange, taking out the biggest slingshot ever and bringing Goliath down to his knees,” he explains.

“David and Goliath. I like that,” one of the others replies, pausing and then adding uncertainly: “We’re David.”

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“Yeah,” says Vincent, sounding as if maybe he’s trying to convince himself, too. “Yeah, we’re David.”

You could understand the confusion. Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) has just brought this man, Mark Vega (Michael Mando), into his confidence and employ as the chief engineer responsible for building a 1,600-kilometre-long fibre-optic cable, which will send data between Kansas City and New York Stock Exchange servers in New Jersey. Vincent – and his cousin, the socially awkward computer-engineering savant Anton – may see themselves as underdogs with a moral mission, but their venture is backed by a deep-pocketed investor, and their business plan involves selling access to the superfast line to Masters of the Universe, who will use it to reinforce their holds on the world. In Wall Street movies, as on Wall Street itself, justice is relative.

This is the world of high-frequency trading, but before you begin high-frequency nodding off, allow me to note that the subject was exhilarating enough to snare the interest of author Michael Lewis, who previously offered up the rollicking subprime mortgage bestseller The Big Short. His thrilling, galling Flash Boys (2014) demonstrated how some Wall Street types had devised a system that guaranteed profits by racing ahead of other traders and sniffing out their intentions. As that book’s screen adaptation languished in development hell, Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen quietly made like his fictional protagonists and raced ahead, cranking out his own tale.

Lucky for us, because whatever film is made of Lewis’s book will likely be in the familiar Hollywood mould of Wall Street films: adrenalized, glossy and a celebration of either the street’s hedonistic titans or its rebellious misfits who use morality to deflect scrutiny from their own amoral motivations. (Hello, Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, etc.)

Salma Hayek, left, plays Eva Torres, a rapacious trader who doesn’t take kindly to disloyalty.

The Orchard

Nguyen, in contrast, has a taste for the downbeat, often with a sprinkling of magical realism, as in his Oscar-nominated child soldier drama War Witch (2012), the Arctic-set Two Lovers and a Bear, or his recent drone-powered stalker/romance Eye on Juliet. And so you will get no Scorsesian tracking shots of firecracker trading floors, no giddy frat boy Champagne-shaking antics; this is a slow-boil thriller coursing with melancholy.

Eisenberg dials back his familiar motor-mouth, playing Vincent as a striver with a protective streak whose blue-collar immigrant roots both nurture and haunt his every move. It is he who persuades his cousin Anton (a bald Alexander Skarsgard, unrecognizable and impressively restrained) to leave the confines of an investment firm headed by Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), a rapacious trader who doesn’t take kindly to disloyalty.

As Anton holes himself up in a Midwestern hotel working on the code that will run their trading transactions, Vincent follows his construction crews and their hulking machines up muddy hills and down verdant valleys (a Sikorsky helicopter makes a bone-shaking cameo), their heavy industry contrasting with the weightlessness of the digital processes that will actually power the bits and bytes.

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The strategy, as Anton explains to a cocktail waitress one lonely evening, is beguilingly straightforward: Let’s say you’re an investor looking to buy 1,000 shares in a Zimbabwean lemon company. After you place your bid with an exchange in Kansas City for $10 a share, my superfast line allows me to race ahead of you to the New York Stock Exchange servers, where I purchase shares from someone offering a lower price. I (or, rather, my algorithms) then turn around and sell the shares to you for $10, and pocket the difference.

All of this must take place within 16 milliseconds – the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing – in order to beat, by one millisecond, the other available systems. The margins may be tiny, but executing hundreds of thousands of transactions each day could reap billions in a year.

“It’s like time travel,” Anton explains to the waitress, sipping his Coke like a kid. (That waitress is played by the marvellous Tiio Horn, Letterkenny’s brusquely funny Tanis – one of many Canadian supporting players, including Michael Mando, Kwasi Songui, Sarah Goldberg and Ayisha Issa, who more than hold their own against Eisenberg and Skarsgard.)

In fact, money may be driving the drama, but time is The Hummingbird Project’s real obsession. The goal of Vincent’s entire enterprise is to find one spare millisecond and exploit the hell out of it until someone else devises an even faster system, probably within a year. Billions of dollars can be manufactured inside that sliver, yet Vincent spends months mucking around beautiful landscapes without pausing to take in his surroundings. Nguyen knows that it’s not how much time you have that matters; it’s what you do with what’s given to you.

The Hummingbird Project opens March 22

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