A Pirates Strife for Me: Can Abdi cut it as a ship jacker?s Strife for Me: Can Abdi cut it as a ship jacker?
A Pirates Strife for Me: Can Abdi cut it as a ship jacker?s Strife for Me: Can Abdi cut it as a ship jacker?

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There’s only one film about Somali pirates that’s worthy of an Oscar. Sorry, Tom Hanks, but it’s not Captain Phillips.

Writer-director Cutter Hodierne’s feature debut, Fishing Without Nets, is appropriately chaotic, intense, and violent in its portrayal of a pirate takeover. But it’s also poetic, beautiful, and serene—characteristics that aren’t exactly expected in a thriller, especially one by a freshman helmer. Yet they deepen a familiar story into something lovely and soul-stirring, a narrative that lifts the curtain on its action to let you glimpse the motivations and, occasionally, the integrity of the characters involved.

Hodierne focuses the film on Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a poor fisherman who is reluctantly persuaded that the only way to rise above poverty is to sink to his neighbors’ level. And, as it happens, they’re hijackers. Whether Abdi is strutting through his village, playing with his young son, or caressing his wife’s face, he seldom talks. Yet we hear his internal reflections in voiceover, as if he’s reading his journal. He wants nothing to do with murderers and thieves—even those he calls friends. Instead, he aspires to live up to the moral standards of his late father, who was also a fisherman. The seas have long turned dry, however, and eventually Abdi accepts that the town’s increasingly popular trade is more viable than his own. His wife and son are sent elsewhere during Abdi’s mission for an unexplained reason; the anguish from both his impending actions and separation from his family is clear on his face.

Hodierne’s shots are often wide and tranquil, even after the group takes command of a French oil tanker—here’s the sea, the shore, the skyline, all gorgeous and seemingly endless. Paul Greengrass, director of Captain Phillips, should take notes: When Hodierne selectively wavers his camera, it’s to highlight the intensity of a situation. Greengrass’ trademark shaky cam, on the other hand, seems to only serve as a reminder that the characters are at sea (duh), with added flash-edits that make the action unintelligible instead of heart-pounding. Hodierne is stylish, but never flashy.

The cast of Fishing Without Nets comprises only amateur actors, which makes for a more immersive rendering when there’s no, say, Captain Hanks to distract. But that doesn’t mean these men aren’t memorable. Muktar relates Abdi’s warring conscience with impressive nuance, but it’s Abdi Siad, playing Blacky, who’s truly indelible. The character’s rage, impatience, and easily bruised ego shoot dagger-like from Siad’s wild eyes; when it seems as if they’re not going to get any ransom, Blacky describes his coping mechanism as follows: “I’m going to kill somebody!” Siad may not have a line as catchy as “I am the captain now,” but if the film gets even a fraction of the attention that’s been lauded onto Captain Phillips, he’s the one audiences will be talking about.

Sam Cohan, Hodierne, John Hibey, and David Burkman wrote the film, though it was really an outline, with Hodierne allowing his cast to improvise even though he didn’t understand their language. Writing the film from the bad guys’ perspective keeps the action compelling—its third act is hardly telegraphed, even if there is a guessable moral—and the writers and director nicely humanize each character by showing the pirates playing games or listening to music, and the head of the group complaining that he has a headache and just wants the negotiations to be done.

Abdi tries to comfort one of the hostages—likely to help comfort himself—but his mind is latched to his family even as the action escalates. It’s wrenching enough that Abdi never makes peace with his choice. But much worse are the hostage’s verbal punches to the gut that force Abdi to face the consequences of his actions on his son and his identity. Through their language barrier, Abdi tells the hostage, “I, fisherman.” He gets this devastating response: “No, you’re not a fisherman. You’re a fucking pirate.”

Fishing Without Nets opens Oct. 9 at AFI Silver.

Due to a reporting error, an original version of this review omitted the names of Cutter Hodierne, John Hibey, and David Burkman in writing credits.