The appeal of Somali pirate movies, of which there are now enough to constitute a micro-genre, lies in the way they combine old-fashioned high-seas tension—shipboard confinement intensified by the freedom of open water—with the murky ins and outs of modern commerce. Real-world maritime pirates hijack ships for ransom, not plunder, and modern-day pirate stories trade in abstracted space and action: claustrophobic container ships drifting through endless ocean; protracted, hostile negotiations carried out over satellite phone, with both parties left guessing what the other might do; pirates separated from their leaders and crew members separated from their employers; hostages turned into tradable commodities and forced to communicate with their minders through gestures and snatches of English.
Cutter Hodierne’s VICE-produced Fishing Without Nets—which is significantly expanded from the director-cowriter’s well-traveled 2012 calling card short—bills itself as a maritime hijacking story told from the pirates’ point of view, though the only thing that distinguishes it, perspective-wise, from A Hijacking or Captain Phillips is the fact that most of the movie is set on dry land. At once busy and simplistic, the movie lacks A Hijacking’s suspense and moral urgency and Captain Phillips’ fleshed-out performances. What it offers instead is a slick sense of style and a surfeit of credible detail.
Abdikani Muktar reprises his role as everyman Abdi, who is forced by economic circumstance to participate in the hijacking of a container ship. Having decided that the ship’s white crew members are their most valuable bargaining chip, the pirates separate them, sending Frenchman Victor (Reda Kateb) to the mainland, with Abdi as one of his minders. What follows is the usual hostage-hijacker bonding arc, undermined by Abdi’s over-stressed blamelessness and Hodierne’s tendency to paint most of the other pirates as cackling out-and-out villains. Despite Fishing Without Nets’ grounding in the harsh economic realities of life on Somalia’s shores, its perspective on the pirate subculture comes down to a sort of watered-down action-movie neorealism, where the bad guys have all the agency, the good guys are all victims of the system, and nobody is in between.
Incidental sequences help offset some of the movie’s shortcomings, but only to a degree. One memorable scene finds the hijackers, who are operating at a loss, trying to sell off Victor—as well the right to collect his ransom—to another pirate crew in exchange for a quick influx of cash; in effect, the pirates operate like smaller, more desperate versions of the multinationals they target. Occasionally, these subplots threaten to—pardon the wordplay—hijack the film as it trudges on toward its inevitably messy conclusion, and at times a viewer wishes that they would.
Hodierne’s original short—which ended right before the actual hijacking—was heavy on over-graded, self-hyping action movie-isms, but his feature shows a filmmaker who’s become more comfortable with silence and form. If nothing else, Fishing Without Nets looks good on a big screen, directed in the kind of slick, just-off-arthouse style that mandates every shot of a character walking be framed from behind. The firm sense of visual scale—with shots often composed around the horizon line, reminding the viewer that even the container ship is just a speck on the ocean—provides Fishing Without Nets with a stage, but not much else; ultimately, the movie is less than the sum of its backdrops.