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Thou shalt not lose thy temper with trespassing fishermen—because it can ruin lives. That’s the spin on the that-fateful-day story in Islander, a spare drama that takes you inside a close-knit fishing community on a small island off Maine. The film is set in the present, but its world is a throwback to when tradition, loyalty, and small-town values mattered most. Among those values: not killing people. The town really turns on you when that happens.
At least that was the reaction when Eben (co-writer Thomas Hildreth), a rogue lobsterman, takes exception with fishers from the mainland who keep dropping traps in the islanders’ territory. (“Island boy!” one sneers.) Eben cuts off their buoys—a license-risking offense—and his cohorts, including his crusty father (Larry Pine), insist that the group try instead to resolve the matter peacefully. But that makes Eben go more berserk, and the next morning he takes out his boat accompanied only by a shotgun. He finds an offender and fires some warning shots. Accidentally, though, a man falls overboard. And via chopped-up camera angles, Eben holds his head and generally freaks out.
Eben is sentenced to five years in prison; writer-director Ian McCrudden marks the time with a rapid-fire cycling of the seasons. During Eben’s incarceration, his perpetually angry wife, Cheryl (Amy Jo Johnson), and their young daughter, Sara (Emma Ford), not only don’t visit, they move in with another fisherman who offers to support them. His name is Jimmy (Mark Kiely), but considering the scripters’ penchant for one-note personalities, he may as well be known as the Asshole. Oh, and at some barely acknowledged point, Eben’s father goes from chain-smoking cigarettes and giving the evil eye to dropping dead.
So the development in Islander—not so good. Neither are the forced accents, which are nearly unlistenable. This story of redemption, however, is so hardcore you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the now-stoic Eben. “Killer” is written all over his house, most of his old buddies sneer in his general direction, and the Asshole isn’t shy about showing off his money or talking about his new trophy roommate. Eben can’t turn around without getting another slap in the face. It’s McCrudden’s biggest success: While capturing the crisp openness of the ocean (the movie was shot in DV), he maintains the suffocating atmosphere in which Eben and the rest of the townspeople try to go about their lives.
The hardscrabble reality of a modern-day fisherman is ably depicted, too, with residents forced to buy groceries on store credit and the dominant talk being about how meager every boat’s catch is each day. Even the weather in the film is mostly windy and partly cloudy. But a well-drawn world is futile if there are no three-dimensional characters to populate it, and it’s a flaw that Islander can’t overcome.