For an hour, Finestkind is the kind of movie they don’t make any more, and just when you’re starting to adapt to its gentle, circadian rhythms (which is about halfway through), it becomes the kind of movie they make all the time. Though it just about works, it’s a curious hybrid of emotional felladrama and gangster realism, something writer Brian Helgeland has essayed before, notably with his script for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. A few years back, this could have been a Malpaso production too, and it’s not hard to imagine Eastwood in the role played here by Tommy Lee Jones, an awards-friendly supporting role that gives the veteran actor his very own mini-Gran Torino.
It opens in Buzzards Bay, the port in Boston’s New Bedford area, where middle-aged sea captain Tom (Ben Foster) is making plans for a fishing trip on his company’s boat, the Harmony, which has seen better days. He is interrupted by a surprise visit from his much younger half-brother Charlie (Toby Wallace), who recently graduated from high-school. The two men share a mother, and that’s about all. Tom is a serious fisherman, while Charlie is simply looking for some adventure, in his last summer of freedom before he takes his place at a prestigious local law school on the first stop to adulthood. This wish is granted, before the film has even really started, when the Harmony catches fire and its crew members have to be rescued by helicopter in a dramatic air-sea rescue.
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Tom and Charlie are chalk and cheese, and they’ve been cast accordingly: Foster’s tough but vulnerable, God’s-lonely-man persona is very much a given, while Wallace, who seemed much too nice to be a punk legend in Danny Boyle’s mini-series Pistol, offsets Foster’s brooding with a naïve freshman charm (“He kinda looks like Justin Bieber,” say the crew, before shaving his boyish locks off with a pair of clippers). After making it back to dry land, the sailors head to Rasputin’s dive bar, where Charlie is confronted by his father, who couldn’t be more out of place in his suit and tie. It seems that Tom’s mother traded up when she divorced his father, the Texas seadog Ray (Jones), and Charlie’s old man, a lawyer, wants the boy to finish his education and join his law firm as a clerk.
For a while, this looks to be the crux of the movie, a story of fathers and sons that takes place within a rather broad study of class in modern-day America. This blue-collar/white-collar divide is heightened when Charlie falls for Mabel (Jenna Ortega), the sparky daughter of a local drug dealer. Mabel exists largely as a counterpoint to the Rich Man, Poor Man saga that is playing out, and the film is all the better for it. She also sets up the scenario for the second half of the movie: having lost ownership of his father’s boat — called Finestkind, as per the title — after an illegal foray into Canadian waters, Tom gets involved with a gang of heroin smugglers for a one-time-only deal that will raise the $100k fine to get the boat out of police custody. This Tom must do because Ray has terminal stomach cancer, and he’s running out of time (“The boat’s my hospice”).
It’s a welcome change of pace and comes just at a time when the film’s totally straight and unironic storytelling seems to be headed down a cul-de-sac of fraternal bickering (“This isn’t your life, it’s my life,” Tom tells Charlie. “You’re a fucking tourist.”) Jones, whose imposing presence is used sparingly to begin with, now becomes more of a central figure, and his father-son spats with Tom adds a new level of tension. The introduction of drug dealer Pete Weeks (Clayne Crawford), whose sarcastic, no-f*cks-given demeanor is, likewise, a respite from the already well established yin and yang of Tom and Charlie.
The two halves don’t fit entirely snugly, and Helgeland tries to fix that with a coda that undoes a lot of the subtlety employed in the freewheeling first section and leaves some serious loose ends hanging from the second. The title, by the way, is Boston slang, a word that Charlie soon finds out can mean anything.
“It’s the Swiss Army knife of words,” shrugs Tom, and the same metaphor can be invoked for Helgeland’s film, an ambitious attempt to combine serious adult issues with satisfying thriller conventions: the parts work by themselves, but you don’t need them all once, just as you don’t need a corkscrew, a bottle opener and a horse’s hoof cleaner when all you really want is a sharp, clean blade.
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Director-screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Ben Foster, Toby Wallace, Jenna Ortega, Tommy Lee Jones, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Aaron Stanford, Scotty Tovar, Tim Daly, Lolita Davidovich, Clayne Crawford
Running time: 2 hr 6 min
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