How many times have we seen this cliché? A charismatic criminal wants to finally go legit and build a family, but he has to pull one last job in order to make enough money to retire for life. After tightly wound thrillers like “A Hijacking” and “Captain Phillips”, which explored the Somali pirate issue from a Western perspective, we get “Last Hijack”, the story of Mohamed, a successful and ruthless Somali pirate, who has to leave his life of crime in order to get married but is enticed by that one last big job that keeps calling him.
The big difference “Last Hijack “brings to this tired premise, however, is that Mohamed’s story is completely real. Easily one of the best documentaries of 2014, Tommy Pallotta and Femke Volting’s film explores the motivations, circumstances, fears and dreams of a real-life pirate in an admirably objective fashion, while also visualizing his thoughts via gorgeous, lucid-dream-like animation sequences in order to create a unique filmgoing experience that’s both intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding.
Pallotta and Volting found Mohamed after an extensive, 18-month search for a subject for their documentary. They were planning to explore the life of a younger, less experienced pirate along with Mohamed’s story, but he proved to be so captivating that they decided to focus all of their attention on him. It’s hard to blame them, since Mohamed exudes an effortless charm and charisma that serves him well, but can also work against him enough to destroy his life. On the outside, he looks relaxed, comfortable in his own skin, proud of his many exploits and spoils while, not showing any remorse for the many people he’s hurt over the years via his chosen “career.”
However, “Last Hijack” doesn’t whitewash Mohamed’s many character flaws. Right off the bat, we witness his duplicitous nature as he works as a kind of piracy pusher, trying to convince other men to join his next hit by promising them the kind of money they couldn’t previously dream about, and women who will bow to their feet and realize their every sexual whim, with the fake sincerity and disingenuous smile of an Army Recruiter. Only when one of his few true friends, a barber, asks to join his crew, he tells him about the massive possibility of being killed or captured while on the job.
Meanwhile, Mohamed’s real life is not the fairy tale he talks it up to be. He wants to settle down via an arranged marriage in order to finally appease his family, who are severely disappointed in the lifestyle he’s chosen. To make matters worse, the father of the bride, a bride who looks like a child and unfortunately probably is, informs Mohamed that he’ll refuse to marry off his daughter if he doesn’t retire from piracy for good.
It’s easy to understand the motivations of Mohamed’s family and future in-laws, forcing him to give up this life. Unfortunately, the hypocrisy with which they go about enforcing their wishes is not lost on Mohamed, making it harder for him to motivate himself to construct a more legitimate life.
Mohamed’s father, Nur, is saddened by his reckless decisions, yet Mohamed learned his life of crime directly through him, since Nur used to take Mohamed to his day job where he would rob drivers at gunpoint after pretending his car had broken down. The family of his soon-to-be bride treat his piracy with obvious scorn and embarrassment, yet have no problem taking the literal bag full of cash collected from Mohamed’s spoils as payment for the girl’s hand in marriage.
On the other side of the coin is a DJ who hosts an anti-piracy radio show on one of Somalia’s most popular FM stations. Pirates threaten his life so often that he can’t get through an interview where he explains this fact without receiving two legitimately creepy calls from people who obviously want him dead. Fortunately for him, these are some of the dumbest murderers on the face of the earth, asking him point blank to confirm his identity and disclose his location as soon as he answers their calls.
The DJ provides a sane and sobering voice to “Last Hijack,” accusing the pirate culture of destroying Somalia’s reputation and economy as well as its family structure, since more than ninety percent of the men who take up piracy end up dead or incarcerated, leaving behind an army of single mothers and widows.
Although the real subjects in “Last Hijack” are surprisingly open and fearless while talking about their criminal activities on camera, there was of course no practical way for the filmmakers to ride along with an actual hijacking. Instead, the animated sequences seamlessly spliced into the narrative do an excellent job of visualizing the events that the real-life cameras could not possibly capture, from the meticulous details of a hijacking described by Mohamed to the dramatization of him witnessing his father’s robberies.
These sequences go beyond the surface of their subject and also delve deep into Mohamed’s fears and dreams as they create some of the most viscerally beautiful animation in a documentary since “Waltz With Bashir.” Co-director Tommy Pallotta produced two underrated Richard Linklater gems, “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” Even though the animated sequences in “Last Hijack” are not rotoscoped from existing footage, they maintain a similar lucid-dream quality, and they exist somewhere between the innocent watercolor paintings of a child and the enormously detailed mechanics of CGI.
The opening animated scene shows Mohamed soaring through the skies while transforming into a majestic eagle, eventually snatching a cargo ship with his giant menacing claws. Without a single line of narration or exposition, Pallotta and Volting manage to visualize the appeal, as well as the profound dangers of piracy, in a scene that lasts barely a minute.
All in all, Last Hijacking is a “One last job before I retire” movie that’s definitely worth your time. [B+]