A pair of high-frequency traders go up against their old boss in an effort to make millions in a fiber-optic cable deal.

According to one of the characters in writer/director Kim Nguyen’s terrific latest feature, The Hummingbird Project, a single flap of a hummingbird’s wings takes 16 milliseconds. That also happens to be the speed at which information needs to travel through the protagonists’ state-of-the-art fiber-optic cable, connecting the New York Stock Exchange to the Kansas Electronic Exchange Data Center. Only it’s not. It’s a millisecond behind. What a difference one millisecond can make.

Both harsh and gentle, sympathetic and cynical, Nguyen’s cautionary tale views humanity through the prism of “microwaves” and “neutrinos,” the very things that connect us at an increasingly fast rate. Ironically, they also draw us apart, invoking greed, envy, and a lack of awareness. As the high-tech world engulfs us, we become engulfed in it, disregarding the environment, our health, each other. Consequently, we’re immune to human emotion, in perpetual pursuit of self-fulfillment. Akin to the fiber-optic cable around which The Hummingbird Project is centered, Nguyen’s world’s a conduit for “neutrinos” – us – always moving, carrying data.

The (anti)hero, Vincent Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg), hatches a “top-secret” plan that would allow him and his cousin Anton (a bald, geek-ified Alexander Skarsgård) to abruptly quit their day job at a financial engineering company. The plan is both simple and complex: to dig a straight “fiber-tunnel” that would directly connect New York to Kansas, speeding up the exchange of stock market quotes by the nth degree, and making the tech-savvy duo extremely rich. Vincent wants to prove his father wrong, while Anton’s dream is to live in a house on a hill with hummingbirds, away from people, forever immersed in coding.

“…to dig a straight ‘fiber-tunnel’ that would directly connect New York to Kansas…”

After gaining the trust of a skeptical investor, Bryan Taylor (Frank Schorpion), Vincent and Anton elope from their manipulative boss Eva (Salma Hayek), who threatens to steal all their codes – and worse, implicate Anton in stealing them from her. As the cousins involve “driller extraordinaire” Mark Vega (Michael Mando) in their scheme, Eva tracks their activities; they eventually come head-to-head in their race for the fastest connection. A dreadful diagnosis halfway through the film puts everything in perspective, allowing for compassion to peek through all the blinded rapacity. Time becomes an issue, and as Vincent and Anton encounter obstacles – a drilling disaster, a reluctant Amish-like community – the stakes rise.

Although The Hummingbird Project deals with complex subjects, like the aforementioned “neutrino messaging,” along with tech and stock exchange jargon, Nguyen effortlessly makes it accessible, and less pedagogical than Adam McKay did with his Financial Crisis for Dummies, The Big Short. The filmmaker also knows his way around a resonant sequence. One such scene involves Vincent and Anton trying to convince a racist man to sell them a strip of his property to run their wire through. Another particularly moving bit has Vincent falling apart at a massage parlor, his confident veneer slipping away. Nguyen wisely offsets some of the grimness with surprising humor, such as Anton’s fear of flying flaring out before the plane even moves (“Nothing happened,” Vincent later explains, “we had a little Anton moment on the plane.”)

“…Eisenberg plays Vincent with gusto he hasn’t displayed since embodying Zuckerberg…”

Driven to the point of ruthlessness, Eisenberg plays Vincent with gusto he hasn’t displayed since embodying Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Vincent won’t stop until he “sees what’s at the end of the line”; the actor showcases real chops, with intermittent, heart-piercing displays of vulnerability.

Similarly, Skarsgård delivers a surprising performance, exposing a previously-unseen side; bald, tall and hunched over, Anton, much like his beloved hummingbird, is reticent and quiet, sipping on sugary sodas through a straw. “It’s like part of your brain is a genius,” Eva tells him, “and another that’s handicapped.” Neither of the actors resorts to gimmicks, infusing the film with a much-needed sense of vulnerability, energy, and authenticity. There’s real chemistry between them, the overly-confident and determined Vincent the perfect contrast to the down-to-Earth, pragmatic Anton.

This hummingbird soars. It has that based-on-a-true-story feel, with all the urgency and verisimilitude of a real-life tale. A sad and visceral indictment of our society under the guise of a thriller, Kim Nguyen’s rousing cinematic elegy will sneak up on you, like its titular moth.

The Hummingbird Project (2019) Written and Directed by Kim Nguyen. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek, Michael Mando.

9 out of 10