Cameron Wayne Johnson’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Somali Piracy Without a Hollywood Budget"! Hey, I guess those rednecks are right with their theory that using extreme weaponry in the vein of explosives and firearms is a great way to fish. Mind you, you have to ambush a cargo ship and take its crew hostage while you work your magic, so I'm not entirely sure that this much more violent method of fishing is that much simpler. Shoot, it sure as all get-out sounds a whole lot more exciting than regular fishing, although I don't know how worthy these thrills are if you find yourself forced to conduct brutal and dangerous acts of piracy in order to provide for your family. Hey, "Captain Philips" was quite good and all, but it could have used a little more human drama, depth and nuance, and that's where this film comes in... at the expense of consistent excitement. You know, I kind of was expecting a little more excitement out of this knockoff of "Captain Philips" that is only lacking the dazzle of a big budget, the intensity of constant action, and the charisma of Tom Hanks. ...Wow, this film sounds boring, so, naturally, I am pleasantly surprised by how good it is, which isn't to say that this film carries many surprises beyond that.
It really is kind of embarrassing how much this film lifts from the already fairly unoriginal "Captain Philips", yet even with twists, this effort does hardly anything especially new as a meditative portrait on a hostile organization that has the power to envelop the innocent, and it does only so much to justify that by really digging into this subject matter. Make no bones about it, this film is often daringly revealing about Somali piracy, but it is just as often a little empty with its messages, due largely to a focus on the main lead that is so intense that the supporters fail to be fleshed out as more than just components to the conflict, if even that. That being said, the film still tends to get caught up in portraying the peers to the leading Khadir character, even if they are much more lacking when it comes to exposition, ultimately being subjects in filler that takes away from the narrative progression and pathos, and therefore establish a certain inconsistency to focus which is sometimes lost altogether, typically at the hands of the most artistically ambitious forms of filler. Most compelling when it is either traditionalist or bitingly atmospheric in how it tells its tale, the film tends to fall into naturalistic storytelling sensibilities whose immersion value would be more vibrant if the plotting was more consistently, if not lyricism whose meditative nature is directed towards artistically-charged visuals and style, rather than substance, or even an especially striking atmosphere. The aesthetic direction of the film is pretty convoluted, but what it ultimately leads back to, nearly every time, is dragging, and not just to the scripting, but to directorial pacing by Cutter Hodierne that, upon limping when there is no material for the thoughtfulness to draw out, gets too subdued or atmosphere to excite or entertain, resulting in some serious dull spells. Seeing this film advertised as a very meditative drama, I was fearing consistent dullness, not expecting the final product to be as compelling as it very much is, and yet, I was pretty bored far more often than I should be, especially if I'm trying to get invested through all of the conventions, expository shortcomings, and questionable storytelling tastes. Getting bored to the point of being underwhelmed is actually a pretty thing to do when it comes to this film, yet I can't say that I found myself reaching that point, because no matter how challenging, the final product rewards, especially on an artistic level.
Some would argue that Kevin Hilliard's and Patrick Taylor's score is unevenly used in this largely meditative drama which can't always decide on how much it should polish its atmosphere, and most everyone can agree that it is nether especially original nor lively enough to make up for the cold spells, but I ultimately found the soundtrack mighty outstanding, in its personal beauty and creativity, and in how its simultaneous subtlety and prominence are incorporated into the atmosphere in order to define the final product's most effective moments. The engrossingly distinct and claustrophobic settings of Somalia and an ambushed sea vessel, coupled with Alex Disenhof's fitting cinematography, are about as instrumental in defining the film as stylistically and dramatically sound, yet the musical and visual spectacle thrive mostly on how they are manipulated by director Cutter Hodierne, whose lyrical sequences, while often dully indulgent, are haunting and immersive in their purity and relative beauty, reflections of a sobering connection between director and material that often bond with real material in order to resonate. What action sequences there are make good use of an intentionally clashing marriage of frantic staging and a heavy, ominous atmosphere in order to craft raw, visceral tension that ripples long after the action (The subplot featuring Red Kateb as a prisoner mostly on land often shook me to my core), broken up by thoughtfulness' hitting a dramatic never and establishing a dramatic impact that runs deep. Sometimes dulling with his ambitions for some sort of minimalism, Hodierne never truly lazes out, for he knows the importance of this subject matter, this study on the brutal and unpredictable nature of Somali piracy, and on the overwhelming anxiety of victims it either directly threatens, or forces into its ranks. Hodierene's, David Burkman's, Sam Cohan's and John Hibey's script stands to be much more consistent with its structure, and with how it draws upon the value of very worthy subject matter, but when it does hit a mark, it is very extensive and audacious, with believable portrayals of the harrowing hardships and relative relief faced by Somalis on and off land, and a drawing of memorable characters whose undercooked layers are really sold by the performances. Man, I will go so far as to say that if this film steps up nothing else from "Captain Philips", then it is the acting (Most of the cast is comprised of non-actors), highlighted by the deeply humanized Reda Kateb as an innocent Frenchman who fears for his life and expresses both anger and sympathy for his captors, and by the penetratingly intense Abdi Siad as the mad leader of the pirates whose lust for goods escalates into a thirst for blood, both of whom are still not much more than worthy peers to emotionally committed leading man Abdikani Muktar. Like so many other elements of the film, the acting's true power takes a little while to really lock in, but just like everything else in the final product, once the teeth are plunged, they captivate, establishing a certain beauty, tension and resonance that define this film as not just a usual dully misguided meditative piece, but as a truly rewarding drama.
In the end, the film is more conventional than it needs to be, but it's the developmental shortcomings, structural and stylistic unevenness, and often considerable coldness that really threaten to limp the final product out into underwhelmingness, but on the backs of exceptionally effective score work, haunting settings and visuals, penetrating direction, extensive scripting, and powerful performances by Reda Kateb, Abdi Siad and Abdikani Muktar, Cutter Hodierne's feature expansion on "Fishing Without Nets" rises to the occasion as a generally realized and engrossing meditation of the dark depths of and humanity around Somali piracy.
3.5/5 - Good