'The Hummingbird Project' Review: An Engaging Financial Thriller Stops Just Short Of Greatness [TIFF]

Writer/director Kim Nguyen's The Hummingbird Project follows the exploits of two cousins, Jesse Eisenberg's Vincent Zaleski and Alexander Skarsgård's Anton Zaleski, determined to run a small fiber-optic cable from Kansas City to New York City. This project, which will require years of their lives and a steady flow of cash, will give them a one millisecond advantage in the dog-eat-dog world of high frequency trading. Why bother to undertake this? They want to own Wall Street to burn it down, they explain toward the end of the film.

The turn of phrase is an endearing one – it's just not something the film necessarily earns. Nguyen's film is far from The Big Short in the depiction of outsiders trying to beat the financial establishment by exploiting their laziness and beating them at their own game. The Zaleski cousins have nothing to establish their animosity for other traders. Rather, Nguyen just jumps right into the action of Vincent trying to hire a contractor to achieve his vision. In his first meeting with the crucial component of executing their vision, Vincent compares their quest to David slaying Goliath. But without a sense of why he needs to slay the beast, the metaphor lacks punch.

The Hummingbird Project still manages to entertain even in spite of the lack of grander stakes. Eisenberg really gets to tear it up as his neurotic, obsessive character. (What a change of pace for him!) But, in all seriousness, for an actor who has played shades of Mark Zuckerberg for the better part of a decade now, it says something about the potency of Eisenberg's screen presence that the shtick has not gotten old. Vincent serves as the main driver for the project, intimately involving himself in the details of drilling and land acquisition. The former is easy, while the latter proves harder. Even though their cable runs six feet under the ground, out of both sight and mind, plenty of people kick up a fuss.

Skarsgård, meanwhile, makes for the brains of the organization. The responsibility of shaving a single second off their algorithm falls on him. Failure to do so means their cable is the same as everyone else's, while cracking the code unlocks a windfall of millions for the Zaleskis. Skarsgård's slouched, balding savant brings some welcome levity to The Hummingbird Project with his off-color observations. He also has some entertaining flare-ups with his former boss, Salma Hayek's Eva Torres, who wants to keep Anton's work for her own profit. (Points to Nguyen for making his avatar for the Wall Street establishment someone other than a white male.)

Yet Anton also plays the role of the film's moral compass, which goes from shaky to steady in no time at all. As the film progresses, he comes around from viewing the livelihoods of people they monetize as more than just another variable in his cold calculations. By pinching groups like African lemon farmers for infinitesimally small sums at a mind-bogglingly high rate, Anton and Vincent can extract a great deal of value from them. But, when asked if the farmers are considered when designing his algorithm, Anton replies that they are not a relevant variable – a response that sends him soul-searching.

The Hummingbird Project stays tense as the cousins' quest continues indefatigably towards completion, even in spite of serious health risks in Vincent's case. As the Zaleskis get so close to securing all the land for the cable, and yet so far, Nguyen really burrows deep on the sticky question of who really owns a given piece of land. This plays out most clearly in Vincent's encounter with a group of Amish people who share none of his zeal for efficiency and profit.

While the chip on Vincent's shoulder grows heavier in the wake of this rejection, Anton's ambivalence begins to mount. "It's all fake, Eva," Anton tells his former employer in resignation. Again, it's another great line by Nguyen, and Skarsgård delivers it with gravitas. But absent a larger sense of purpose in The Hummingbird Project, it rings hollow. Nguyen's tightly directed adult drama always captivates, but his undercooked script cannot help but beg the question "so what?" when the credits roll.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10