Coastlines (2002): Victor Nunez Florida Tale of Reconciliation and Redemtion, Starring Timothy Oliphant

Coastlines, Victor Nunez’s latest film, which premiered in 2002 at Sundance Festival, is finally getting a theatrical release.

Set on the unique landscape of Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” “Coastline” should be regarded part of what could be described as the Panhandle trilogy. The movie is a follow-up to the poetic “Ruby in Paradise” (1993) and the character-driven “Ulee’s Gold” (1997), which featured Ashley Judd (in the former) and Peter Fonda in their best performances to date.

Like the first two segments, “Coastlines” is a tale of reconciliation and redemption, this time around centering on a triangle of two buddies and the woman they both love. As always with Nunez’s films, the regional mood and texture of “Coastlines” are distinctive and ring true. However, the crimeand melodramatic elements don’t jell with the more dynamic relationships that define the film’s dramatic focus.

Lack of name cast of the caliber of Peter Fonda must have presented commercial problems, though a small theatrical distributor should release this modest, intermittently enjoyable film by one of the pillars of the New American Independent Cinema.

With indie film production divided between the two coasts (New York vs. L.A.), Nunez, along with few other filmmakers (most notably the Austin-based Richard Linklater) belongs to a small group of talented directors who propagate American regional cinema at its most poignant. Using the unique terrain and spirit as integral characters in his tales, Nunez makes films that feel and look like those of no other director.

“Coastline” is marred by an uneven script, written by Nunez at least a decade ago, which combines the paradigms of the outsider, used in most of his narratives, with that of a romantic triangle–a mnage-a-trois American country style, set against a context of corruption and crime.

Sonny Mann (Timothy Olyphant) returns to Franklin County after spending three years in prison, during which the gang he ran drugs for has continued to exploit the community with its various shady enterprises. Released earlier than expected, Sonny must undergo adjustment to civilian life, but he’s determined to avenge the injustice caused to him by the Vances who owe him a huge chunk of money. Sonny’s return to his hometown is the catalyst for a series of events that throw out of balance a seemingly quiet and stable community.

Central narrative thread details Sonny’s relationships with Deputy Sheriff Dave Lockhart (Josh Brolin), his childhood chum, and the latter’s nurse wife, Ann (Sarah Wynter), with whom Sonny is still in love. It’s implied that Sonny and Ann have had a sexual bond, and it’s only a matter of time before they fall into each other’s arms again in another illicit affair.
Coastlines details how Sonny’s years of state-imposed prohibition gives rise to a newly-felt wish for marriage and family life. He observes with mixed feelings Dave and Ann’s mutually-gratifying commitment and the admirable way in which they raised their children.

It soon becomes evident that the story will posit two buddies, who have chosen different career paths and lifestyles, in a crisis situation in which the law-observant Dave will have to make some choices about the fate of his “deviant” pal.

As in “Ulee’s Gold,” tradition clashes with modernity in “Coastlines.” On the one hand, we see shrimpers who resist new technologies, still taking to the dark waters at night to lure their catch; oystermen tending the beds that stretch on for miles; pelicans, cranes and dolphins playing languidly at the water surface. And on the other, there are signs of inevitable and not always welcome, change. “The country days are going fast,” notes one character, “corporations are moving in.”

Nunez is a sharp observer of inner transformative journeys taken by complex protagonists while facing predicaments that lead to change. However, at heart, he’s not a melodramatist, and thus not particularly adept at showing easily stirred emotions, steamy adulterous sexual affairs, temperamental bursts, revengeful crime, all the signs of a Hollywood melodrama, which the material calls for.

With the exception of “A Flash of Green,” in which the heavy (played with flair by Richard Jordan) was the most vividly realized character, the villains in Nunez’s films are usually the least developed characters. “Coastlines” is no exception. Though well-played by William Forsythe and Josh Lucas, the Vances are narrowly depicted and function as almost abstract forces of evil.

By Nunez’s high standards, “Coastlines” is a conventional yarn, perhaps a function of the outdated script, rumored to have been written in the 1980s, after “A Flash of Green,” to which it bears slight resemblance in its depiction of a flawed hero who falls from grace and needs to restore his inner sense of honor.

The quiet and unrushed tempo that made “Ruby in Paradise” and “Ulee’s Gold” such mesmerizing experiences is an obstacle here, particularly in the last reel, when revenge and action kick in.
An unsuccessful hybrid of a genre film and personal work, “Coastline” is too low-key and not provocative enough.