Whether it's the guitar twangs on the soundtrack or the mumblin' Method acting, everything feels familiar about Coastlines. Writer-director Victor Nunez says he put aside the idea for the film in the 1980s, and that it completes a trilogy that started with his Ruby in Paradise (1993) and Ulee's Gold (1997), yet the plot is nearly identical to another, more recent mob movie, Under Hellgate Bridge (2000), also about a man returning from prison, revisiting his hometown, and falling in love again with his former girlfriend, who is now the local mob boss' main squeeze.
Nunez's variation concerns Sonny (Timothy Olyphant), an ex-con who arrives on the Gulf Coast of Florida to settle back into his old life. He reunites with his best friend, Dave (Josh Brolin), a deputy sheriff married to his former girlfriend, Ann (Sarah Wynter), a nurse. Meanwhile, Sonny confronts the area's development chieftain, Vance (William Forsythe), and Vance's corrupt family members, who owe him money from before his imprisonment.
As Vance and his sons plot to get rid of Sonny, Sonny begins a secret affair with Ann, despite her loyalty to Dave and their young children. Instinctively, Dave tries to protect his friend from the mob family, though he is unaware of Sonny's tryst with his wife. Eventually, there is a showdown between Sonny and Vance's family, and Dave saves Sonny's life. While Sonny recuperates from his injuries in the hospital, Ann finally tells Dave of her love for Sonny, but he doesn't react as she expects. Instead, later, he welcomes Sonny into the family fold.
As with his earlier works, Nunez's flat, literal approach is appropriate for the simple story, but it hardly makes this 2002 production very exciting. At the same time, Nunez is all too influenced by those over-the-top 1950s plays and movies about young men returning to their home towns under less-than-welcoming circumstances (Picnic, Some Came Running, et al.). But the director's style is so low-key, it defuses almost all the tension-both from the love-triangle and mob-theme plots. Even an action-oriented fight scene on a boat lacks any real suspense. Perhaps the unconventional ending shouldn't be a surprise, although it is completely unbelievable.
Technically, Nunez hasn't come very far as a film artist. The pedestrian direction is accompanied by unexceptional camerawork and production design. Some moments are even downright clichéd, as Nunez uses a rack focus to accentuate character point of view (for example, when Sonny sees Dave and Ann and their children from outside their living-room window and wallows in the fact he does not have a family of his own). The acting is fair but some of the line readings are extremely difficult to hear, and Josh Brolin goes in and out of his deep Southern accent.
Worst of all, Coastlines seems to want to make a point but never does. Maybe it is just a character study with three lost souls trying to find themselves. Maybe it is something more profound. But as a supporting character says towards the end of the film, "We have to wrap this up"; you'll want to head for the exits well before this sentiment is even uttered.