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The Violent Zone

Director: Victor Nunez
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Josh Brolin, Sarah Wynter, William Forsythe, Josh Lucas

(IFC; UK DVD: 9 Jan 2012)

Given some generic action movie cover art and re-titled The Violent Zone for its UK DVD release, Victor Nunez’s 2002 film Coastlines – to give it its original name – is not an action movie at all, but rather a Florida-set production that combines modern film noir with soap opera melodrama.


Prior to the release of The Violent Zone, Nunez had already established an excellent reputation for understated and thoughtful regional filmmaking, so it’s a shame that this film doesn’t gel at all, rife as it is with cliché, pedestrian direction, stodgy pacing and the kind of bland, flat cinematography that lacks contrast. Crucially too, the film features a fairly weak performance by its leading man, Timothy Olyphant.


Using as a springboard a narrative device which is similar to 1993’s infinitely superior Carlito’s Way (an ex-con returns to home turf to lead what should be a quiet and trouble-free life, only to find the magnetic pull of criminality has other ideas), The Violent Zone stars Olyphant as the restless and troubled Sonny, newly released from a three-year stint in the pokey.


Coming from a rural Southern town where law enforcement appears subordinate to the local underworld, Sonny begins to weigh up the risks of attempting to claim back the $200,000 he is rightfully owed by crime boss Fred Vance and his nephew Eddie (the excellent William Forsythe and Josh Lucas).


He decides to confront the pair, and despite appearing to initially acquiesce to Sonny’s request for the money, the Vances are affronted and threatened by the young man’s chutzpah – not to mention reluctant to part with the cash – so they plot a pre-emptive hit, which takes the form of an arson attack on the home of Sonny’s father, who has been offering him lodgings until his son gets back on his feet. Sonny’s father dies in the fire, and Sonny is injured.


Requiring somewhere to convalesce, Sonny is offered new accommodation at the home of his old friend – and the local sheriff—Dave (Josh Brolin). Whilst Dave is not fully availed of the finer points of Sonny’s criminal dealings, he nevertheless suspects the Vances’ involvement in the fire and the probable motivation for the attack, and therefore Sonny’s need for revenge.


However, Dave’s preoccupation and concern for Sonny’s welfare diverts his attention away from domestic matters; Sonny capitalises on this, squeezing through the attention gap to begin a passionate affair with Dave’s beautiful wife Ann (Sarah Wynter), and thus begins a dual narrative strand: Sonny’s quest for retribution, and his illicit relationship with his best friend’s wife.


Thankfully, the main dramatic thrust of the film concerns itself with the ménage à trois, rather than yet more clichéd gangster shenanigans (which could have turned the film into another sub-Tarantino rip-off); as Ann begins to develop deeper feelings for Sonny, Nunez draws the majority of the film’s drama from the potential conflict between the three leads.


How will Dave react should he discover the affair? Will Sonny achieve revenge against the Fred and Eddie Vance, and what are the implications of his actions on his relationship with Ann? Also, as Ann becomes more emotionally attached to Sonny, how will she respond should he be hurt or killed, and should that happen, how will she then relate to her decent, loyal husband of many years, in the wake of such secret heartbreak?


Whilst Nunez clearly strives to imbue his drama with the sort of steamy, humid and darkly tempestuous Southern erotica best represented in films such as Lawrence Kasdan’s terrific Body Heat (1981), The Violent Zone is by contrast a meandering, implausible film (the conveniently neat, saccharine resolution is particularly baffling), and despite a couple of excellent performances that offer a welcome counterpoint to Olyphant’s anaemic presence – including Brolin, whose star was certainly on the ascendant when this film was made – the film is just, well, dull, and it also lacks the emotional complexity of Nunez’s earlier work.


On the plus side, in addition to Brolin’s brooding, subtle and simmering ‘does-he-or-doesn’t-he-suspect-them’ performance, the other standout is a mesmerising and rough-as-sandpaper appearance by the fabulous and menacing Forsythe, who is sadly afforded very little screen time, despite being one of the finest character actors working in the US today.


The underrated Forsythe has that enviable actor’s ability to inhabit a role to the extent that one can readily believe the person onscreen isn’t an actor at all, but is instead the genuine article, occupying the same existence in reality as he or she does in the world of cinematic fiction; another performance typical of this phenomenon is the truly terrifying turn by the late Bill McKinney, who played the unnamed ‘Mountain Man’ in Deliverance (1972) so convincingly, and with such exquisite nastiness, that it’s possible to believe that McKinney was just found chopping wood behind a remote shack somewhere in the woods and offered a few dollars to get involved – until, of course, you discover he was a classically-trained actor, and Dustin Hoffman’s classmate.


Sadly though, a few great performances can’t lift The Violent Zone out of mediocrity. Nunez wrote and directed 1997’s critically acclaimed Ulee’s Gold prior to this film (Ulee’s Gold is the second in his Florida Panhandle series, the first being Ruby in Paradise (1993), the third being this), and though The Violent Zone should have represented another important development in his directorial career, and perhaps the pinnacle of his indie trilogy, the fact it languishes in relative obscurity should give some indication of what a misstep it turned out to be, which is a shame considering the quality of the two films that preceded it.


Like Michael Cimino before him, it’ll be a great shame if Nunez’s talent and promise eventually desert him, as he’s an important independent filmmaker (Nunez is to Florida, what George A. Romero is to Pittsburgh), and while his most recent film Spoken Word (2009) garnered fairly positive reviews, it was such a low-key festival circuit release – and his first film for seven years - that you get the impression Nunez has regressed commercially and has been treading water for some time. Let’s just hope another film with the form and intellectual depth of Ulee’s Gold is forthcoming at some point in the future.


There were no extras on the DVD.

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