Dir Victor Nunez. US. 2002. 116min.

Coastlines, Victor Nunez's latest film to be set on the unique landscape of Florida's unfamiliar coast, should be regarded as an instalment in his Panhandle trilogy, a follow-up to the poetic Ruby In Paradise (1993) and character-driven Ulee's Gold (1997), which featured Peter Fonda in one of his best performances. Like the first two segments, Coastlines is a tale of reconciliation and redemption, this time around centring on a triangle of two buddies and the woman they both love. As always with a Nunez film, the regional mood and texture of Coastlines are distinctive and ring true, but the crime melodramatic elements don't gel with the more dynamic and complex social relationships that define the film's dramatic focus. Lack of name cast of the calibre of Peter Fonda will present further 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.

Nunez belongs to a small group of talented and important directors who propagate American regional cinema at its most poignant. Using the unique terrain and spirit as integral characters in his tales, Nunez's films feel and look like those of no other director - they certainly differ from Hollywood pictures shot in Florida (usually in Miami).

The uneven script combines the theme of the outsider, which has been used by him in most of his narratives, with that of a romantic triangle, set against a context of corruption and crime.

Sonny Mann (Olyphant) returns to Florida's Franklin County after spending three years in prison, during which the gang he ran drugs for has continued to thrive. Released earlier than expected, Sonny undergoes a process of adjustment to civilian life, while determined to avenge the injustice caused to him by the criminal Vance brothers, who owe him money. Sonny's return to his hometown is the catalyst that propels in motion a series of events that throw out of balance a seemingly quiet community that has not changed much over the years.

At the centre of the story is Sonny's relationships with Deputy Sheriff Dave Lockhart (Brolin), his best chum from childhood, and the latter's nurse wife, Ann (Sarah Wynter), with whom Sonny is still in love. It's only a matter of time until they fall into each other's arms again in another illicit affair. Coastlines is effective and engaging in detailing how Sonny's years of state-imposed prohibition gives rise to a newly-felt envy for marriage and family life. He observes with mixed feelings Dave and Ann's sheltered, mutually-gratifying commitment, and the admirable way in which they raised their children. Soon however a crisis forces law-abiding Dave to make some important choices about the fate of his "deviant" pal.

As in Ulee's Gold, tradition clashes with modernity in Coastlines. On the one hand, we observe 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. But there are also signs of inevitable, not always welcome, change.

Nunez is a sharp observer of inner, transformative journeys taken by complex protagonists facing predicaments that lead to change. However, he's not so keen on melodrama which a movie like this needs to make a lasting impression. Indeed, the quiet, unhurried tempo that made Ruby In Paradise and Ulee's Gold such mesmerising experiences, proves to be an obstacle here, particularly in the last reel, when the revenge subplot and action kick in.

Moreover, like in most of his previous films the villains are the weakest, least developed characters. Though well-played by vet William Forsythe and Josh Lucas, the Vances are narrowly depicted and remain almost abstract forces of evil throughout the story.

By the high standard of Nunez, who doesn't make simple films, Coastlines is a rather conventional yarn, perhaps a function of the screenplay having been written in the 1980s. It is an intelligent, estimable, well-acted offbeat contemporary melodrama, but it's not provocative enough.

Prod co: A Clear Blue Sky, IFC Productions
Exec prods: Eric Robison, John Sloss, Jonathan Sehrling, Caroline Kaplan
Prods: Jody Allen Patton, Nunzez
Scr/ed: Nunez
Cinematographer: Virgil Mirano
Prod des: Pat Garner
Music: Charles Engstrom
Main cast: Timothy Olyphant, Josh Brolin, Sarah Wynter, Scott Wilson, Angela Bettis, Josh Lucas, William Forsythe