Writer-director Victor Nunez makes movies of a particular kind about a particular place, namely quiet, lyrical character pieces set in his native Florida. The approach has served him well, at least from an artistic standpoint, over a career stretching back to the '70s, but it doesn't let him make movies as often as he'd probably like, or sell them when he does. Coastlines completes what Nunez has dubbed his Panhandle Trilogy, rounding out a cycle begun with Ruby In Paradise, which made a star out of a never-better Ashley Judd, and Ulee's Gold, which reminded the world how great an actor Peter Fonda could be. Coastlines premièred at Sundance four years ago, and is just now receiving a theatrical run.
That probably has a lot to do with the shifting expectations for American independent films, but as tempting as it is to make Coastlines an example of what's wrong with the indie market, it must be noted that this is the least successful entry in Nunez's Panhandle films. It keeps many of the expected Nunez virtues—understated and absorbing performances, a strong sense of place, unhurried direction—but dilutes them with clunky dialogue and relationships that seem forced.
Still, the virtues shouldn't be dismissed, particularly the lead performances from Timothy Olyphant—as a just-released drug dealer out to tie up some unfinished business with the local drug lords (Josh Lucas and William Forsythe)—and his lifelong friend Josh Brolin, as a near-saintly sheriff determined to take care of the locals, no matter how determined they are not to take care of themselves. There's no reason for the men to be friends, but history has made them powerfully fond of each other, a fondness put to the test by Olyphant's attraction to Brolin's wife (Sarah Wynter).
That love triangle is Coastlines' center. Trouble is, it plays more like canned heat than blazing inferno, and for some reason, Nunez gives Wynter dialogue that spells out what's going on when the action ought to speak for itself. And while Nunez's outsized humanism remains in place, it doesn't really fit some of the story's turns, or make sense in a finale that ties up the loose ends far too neatly. It's a sweet scene of a community rediscovering itself, the kind of moment Nunez does well. This time, however, he doesn't quite earn it.