Perhaps the most frightening thing about blockbuster thrillers and action films is their purposeful lack of empathy, their reliance on faceless others whose deaths—comic and exhilarating—allow the heroes to bond and grow and find their smiles or whatever. A studio film such as Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler, which devoted its final third to the killer's post-arrest therapy, would be even more surprising today than it was in '68. That explains some of the hosannas that greeted Paul Greengrass' Somali-pirate thriller Captain Phillips last year. Stylishly shaky in camerawork but no great shakes as drama, the movie distinguished itself by daring to look beyond good guys and bad guys and remind us that its antagonists are people. It's not excusing their actions to acknowledge that global poverty has more to do with piracy than, say, inherent black-hatted evilness.
Now Cutter Hodierne's gorgeous, harrowing debut feature, Fishing Without Nets, goes further. Rather than asking you to feel a bit for the pirates, Hodierne's film puts you in their shoes. Again and again, the camera bobs behind uncertain Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a Somalian fisherman/husband/father/nice guy, as he journeys deeper into places he probably shouldn't: a ramshackle pirate camp, a foreign oil tanker, at times into wide and empty expanses of ocean and desert.
When we meet him, Abdi is still trying to fish an ocean that has been poisoned so he can feed a child in a shanty of a country that offers no opportunities. Abdi's skills with a boat bring him to the attention of local pirates, who finally prevail upon him to send his wife and child off to a safe house and sign on for a raid out in the nearest shipping routes—and the possibly grand payday to follow. How else can he care for his family? But worry pinches his easy smile: This isn't what his father raised him to be.
What follows isn't especially violent, but it is raw and upsetting, even with Hodierne's eye for seascapes or the way sweat can glisten as it pools in the clavicles. The perspective sticks mostly with the pirates during the protracted hostage negotiations, but Abdi shares a few affecting moments with a captive Frenchman (Reda Kateb). Even the scenes of imprisonment—and of pirates shouting and pointing crusty old AK-47s—stir complex feeling: The Frenchman and Abdi play checkers with bottle caps on a grid of hand-scribbled plywood. Even the prisoner's heart seems to be breaking. (He's figured out that he's of no value to these guys dead or even wounded.) The pirates, meanwhile, prefer a grimmer game: competing to be the quickest to jam a cartridge into a gun and get the nozzle pointed at someone else. It's at once a contest, a practical skill and a terrifying admission that, in their world, there's no other skill that matters.
Most of the film plays like a pirate procedural—an ordinary ship-taking, rather than a singular one. But dissatisfaction among the Somalis eventually leads to terrible complications and, of all things, a curiously beautiful adventure-film ending. The final shots boast some existential man-vs.-nature grandeur, but never anything like grandiosity, and they will leave audiences sifting the implications: Does this powerful film have a happy ending? Is one even possible?