THE STORY – Two brothers from opposite sides of the tracks are reunited as adults. Desperate circumstances force them into a deal with an organized crime syndicate in Boston, and a young women gets caught in the middle.
THE CAST – Ben Foster, Toby Wallace, Jenna Ortega, Tommy Lee Jones, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Aaron Stanford, Scotty Tovar, Tim Daly, Lolita Davidovich, Clayne Crawford
THE TEAM – Brian Helgeland (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
Charlie (Toby Wallace) is supposed to be going to law school, but he would much rather join his older half-brother Tom (Ben Foster) working on a fishing boat, trawling the Boston Bay area for shellfish. Tom doesn’t think it’s a good idea but relents, and after one disastrous but successful trip, takes Charlie on as part of the crew. But when Tom’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) asks him to take out his boat, Tom gets caught fishing in Canadian waters, leaving the crew without their catch and with a considerable fine to get the boat back. In a desperate bid for cash, Tom, Charlie, and their crew take on a drug deal that goes awry. Will they survive? Will they be able to get their boat back?
When a film opens with a shot of a boat named “Harmony,” subtlety should be off the table. Still, Brian Helgeland’s “Finestkind” strives for a naturalistic tone that doesn’t vibe with the story and dialogue’s complete and utter lack of subtlety. The cast, which also includes up-and-comers Ismael Cruz Cordova and Jenna Ortega, is incredibly talented, but the painfully awkward/obvious dialogue resists every attempt to make it work. Wallace is a very capable lead and makes a great pairing with Foster, who is just as committed here as he always is. Foster is well-matched with Jones, who gives precisely the performance you’d expect in exactly the type of role you’d expect. Ortega is a little bundle of charisma, slicing through the film like a knife with her piercing eyes that convey the roughness of her character’s background. The dialogue may be meant to reflect the simple, working-class cadence of the New Bedford area where the film takes place. Still, even someone as preternaturally talented as Ortega can’t get it out without sounding like a giant, groaning cliché.
The one person who manages to overcome the cliché dialogue, mainly by embracing it, is Clayne Crawford. Playing the dangerous drug dealer Ortega’s Mabel hooks the crew up with to make some fast money, Crawford first appears well over halfway through the film. He immediately begins chewing the scenery, throwing any attempts at subtlety out the window. It’s a big, unrepentantly over-the-top performance that is exactly the shot in the arm the film needed from the beginning. Using food, small objects, and even other humans as props with gleeful abandon, Crawford revels in his character’s villainy, and it’s incredibly fun to watch.
Unfortunately, not much else in “Finestkind” is. The film is filled with elements that could work, but it isn’t focused enough to make any of the points it’s trying to make. There are elements of social commentary, a coming-of-age story for Charlie, an extended family saga, a romance, and a crime thriller scattered throughout, but none of these elements make enough of their minimal screen time to work as well as they should. The film is paced like a slow burn, slowly tightening the noose around the characters until it feels like there’s no way out, a reflection of most of the characters’ hardscrabble backgrounds and the social structure that has prevented them from rising above. In actuality, though, it doesn’t feel like a slow burn so much as a series of events that keep happening to our main characters. While the characters’ actions have occasionally violent consequences that throw their plans into disarray, Helgeland’s direction refuses to budge from its minimal, naturalistic approach, making the film feel much more like a character drama than the crime saga it presents itself as. Had the writing been sharper, this approach could have worked, but it’s very hard to believe that something so lifelessly cliché is from the same person who wrote “L.A. Confidential” or even “Mystic River.”
Perhaps Helgeland is better at adapting other writers’ dialogue for the screen than he is at writing his own, or perhaps “Finestkind” is an anomaly, a subject too close to the author (who was raised in New Bedford) for him to be able to take a step back and look at critically. Either way, without Crawford’s explosively entertaining performance, “Finestkind” sinks under its own weight despite the rest of the cast’s valiant efforts to keep it afloat.