Sometimes it's best to leave those old scripts in the trunk, a view borne out by "Coastlines," a melodramatic step backward for writer-director Victor Nunez after his last two pictures, the first-rate "Ruby in Paradise" and "Ulee's Gold."

Sometimes it’s best to leave those old scripts in the trunk, a view borne out by “Coastlines,” a melodramatic step backward for writer-director Victor Nunez after his last two pictures, the first-rate “Ruby in Paradise” and “Ulee’s Gold.” Nunez wrote the present script right after making his problematic 1984 thriller “A Flash of Green,” and he’s become a considerably better, more subtle dramatist in the interim. Flecked by some typically naturalistic grace notes, new pic is nevertheless submerged much of the time in the mechanics of an uninspiring menage a trois and some one-dimensional villainy. Without strong reviews or the sort of scintillating lead performance that anchored his most recent films, commercial seas will be choppy for this respectable but disappointing effort.

Title makes reference to Florida’s so-called forgotten coast, the setting of both “Ruby” and “Ulee,” the Gulf of Mexico Panhandle area long deemed a sleepy backwater but recently showing signs of burgeoning commercial development. “Those country days are going fast around here,” local “entrepreneur” Fred Vance (William Forsythe) informs Sonny (Timothy Olyphant) upon the latter’s release from prison. Sonny took the fall for Fred and his jumpy nephew Eddie (Josh Lucas) in a drug bust, and now Sonny just wants to collect the $200,000 the Vances owe him and quietly get on with his life.

Unsurprisingly, the Vances claim they don’t have that much cash sitting around just now, and when Sonny presses his case, the bad ol’ boys blow up Sonny’s house, killing his old oyster-man dad (Scott Wilson). With nowhere to go, Sonny puts up with Dave (Josh Brolin) and Ann (Sarah Wynter), his best friends from the old days. Hunky policeman Dave knows the Vances are criminals but hasn’t been able to pin anything on them, while the attractive Ann seems to have adapted to life as a professional nurse and responsible mother of two daughters. All the same, Dave appears to bore Ann, and Sonny’s presence serves as a constant reminder of how much she loved her former “crazy” life.

Unfortunately, the inevitability of Sonny and Ann’s illicit affair proves much more resistible to the viewer than it does to the participants. For starters, Nunez never makes it clear whether the two had been lovers previously; presumably, the sexual charge that drives them now must have existed before, and it would be useful to know if they acted upon it in their youth or are only now giving into it. Worse, however, is the fact that the liaison makes no sense from Ann’s point of view; if Dave’s a bit dull, Sonny is a true loser, with few redeeming qualities and no prospects. Even if momentarily blinded by lust, Ann would have to be deaf and dumb and somehow imagine that attaching her fate to Sonny’s could lead her anywhere but down.

Despite the dramatic depth charges repped by the affair and the Sonny-Vance antagonism, which seems sure to produce more violence, “Coastlines,” unlike “Ruby” and especially “Ulee,” produces no undertow or gathering force. To the contrary, the midsection really drifts, as Sonny takes a job at a nearby garage run by a friend (Robert Wisdom, excellent) and avoids the too-available Effie (Angela Bettis) as his sessions with Ann become more frequent. At the same time, the police drag their heels where the Vances are concerned, leaving it to Sonny and the bad guys to try to settle their differences themselves in an unlikely, although not unoriginal, nautical showdown.

The script’s bare narrative bones make this sound like nothing more than old B movie or telefilm fare; fortunately, Nunez is able to elevate the proceedings somewhat through his feel for the region and its people, and via accrued detail. There is a strong sense of everyone onscreen having known each other, their secrets and foibles included, forever, and of life in these parts resisting major change despite the onrush of development. The organic feel of Nunez at his best is still present in spots, but the filmmaker’s deliberate, patient style often lapses into lethargy here.

Nor can the leading players make their characters seem anything more than ordinary. To make Sonny somehow worth the risk for Ann, Olyphant would have needed to supply him with an alluring spark or dangerous streak that simply isn’t present; as it is, his performance sort of floats along just like the character. Similarly, Wynter is OK but doesn’t elaborate on the text’s suggestion of the dissatisfaction gnawing away inside that drives her into Sonny’s arms. Brolin is credible as the straight-arrow cop who can be no more or less than what he is. Some of the supporting actors, including Wisdom as the big-hearted garage owner, Wilson as Sonny’s doomed father and von Bargen as the police chief who’s been on the job too long, make the most of their brief opportunities, and Forsythe embraces his stock friendly/threatening dialogue with a richly entertaining sandpaper growl.

Tech aspects are standard.

Coastlines

Production

A Clear Blue Sky and IFC Prods. production. Produced by Jody Allen Patton, Victor Nunez. Executive producers, Eric Robison, John Sloss, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan. Co-producer, Sam Gowan. Directed, written by Victor Nunez.

Crew

Camera (color), Virgil Mirano; editor, Nunez; music, Charles Engstrom; music supervisor, Janice Ginsberg; production designer, Pat Garner; art director, Adele Plauche; set designer, Circe Mirano; set decorator, William D. McLane; costume designers, Marilyn Wall-Asse, Lisa Martin-Stuart; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Winter; line producer, Stewart Lippe; associate producer-casting, Heidi Levitt; assistant director, Gus Holzer. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premiere), Jan. 16, 2002. Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Sonny - Timothy Olyphant
Dave - Josh Brolin
Ann - Sarah Wynter
Pa - Scott Wilson
Effie - Angela Bettis
Eddie Vance - Josh Lucas
Bob Johnson - Robert Wisdom
Sheriff Tate - Daniel von Bargen
Redhead - Blake Lindsley
Henry - Robert Glaudini
Roy - Edwin Hodge
Rachel - Abigail Mavity
Trish - Caity Elizabeth
Doctor - Steven Gilborn
Lady in Red - Karen S. Gregan
Nurse - Freda Foh Shen
Fred Vance - William Forsythe

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