The word Finestkind has no specific meaning, and we’re told so by one of the protagonists of the film, which is also called the same. It could be something cool, something exceptional, or something much different. Although in the film, Finestkind happens to be the name of a fishing boat, which plays a very (actually the most) important part in the narrative. Director Brian Helgeland’s 2023 crime drama, starring names like Ben Foster, Toby Wallace, Jenna Ortega, and the indomitable Tommy Lee Jones, is a film where you can see a lot of effort. This is a very personal story for the director, as he has been waiting almost three decades to tell it. As touching as that sounds, what we have here is a film that’s all over the place with the narrative. But the story it tells can be described with a term I generally refrain from using: heart.
Is It Based On A True Story?
Let us address the facts first. Helgeland, the sixty-year-old director of Finestkind, grew up in New Bedford, where Finestkind is set. His family has always been into fishing, and he did follow in their footsteps. In a recent article, Helgeland clarified that despite the story of Finestkind being completely fictional, the characters we see are inspired by people Helgeland has known during his fishing days. It would actually be wrong to refer to that as the past, though. The man may have gone on to win an Academy Award as a writer (for L.A. Confidential), but the fisherman in him never left. That in particular makes Finestkind a very special film, whose original draft was written by Helgeland some thirty years ago. Wallace’s character in the film is actually modeled on a young Helgeland who was also at the crossroads of life about whether to become a fisherman or pursue higher education for a stable, safe future.
Helgeland’s love for the world he originally belonged to is very much visible on screen. While Wallace’s character in Finestkind is basically Helgeland himself, the director himself wrote in the article that Ray and Tom Eldridge are very much based on real-life fishermen from New Bedford. He also mentioned what a great time he had while filming Finestkind, as he was pretty much reliving the life that he left behind. He also didn’t need any technical consultation (which is a must for films like this one) as he obviously was aware of every single important thing of the life of a fisherman, considering he himself used to be one.
What Happens In The Movie?
The story we have here does have a lot of layers, but it is quite accessible. Half brothers Charlie and Tom have a complicated relationship between them. Ever since childhood, Charlie has been trying to idealize Tom, who’s given him both the hot and cold treatment. However, it becomes quite evident from the very first scene that Tom, who’s a washed-up fisherman, does love Charlie a lot. He, in fact, cares for Charlie so much that he would rather have his brother stay away from him and pursue a future in academics. The two of them share the same mother, Donna, who’s married to Charlie’s dad, a lawyer who’s not quite fond of his son’s association with Tom. That can’t stop Charlie from randomly showing up in New Bedford and joining Tom’s crew. Unfortunately, though, during Charlie’s first tryst with the water, their boat sinks and the crew barely escapes death. Charlie’s father attempts to take him away, but he chooses to stick around with Tom and the crew. Charlie also takes a liking to Mabel, who hangs around with the crew.
Who Is Ray, And What Does He Want From Tom?
Ray Eldridge (not sure if the character is named after the famous jazz musician), another fisherman, is Tom’s father, and this father-son duo is never really on good terms. Tom used to be part of Ray’s crew before breaking away and setting up on his own. We don’t particularly get to know what exactly made the relationship sour, but it can be easily assumed that Ray never really approved of Tom’s reckless ways of life. However, Ray himself seems like exactly what Tom would turn into when he is older, which is a wonderful contradiction the film presents to us. Not to mention, Ben Foster and Tommy Lee Jones are at their absolute best as Tom and Ray, respectively, and they are clearly the reason you stick with this film, despite all its issues.
Anyway, now without a boat and out of work, Tom has no other option but to accept his father’s offer to take “Finestkind,” Ray’s boat, out to sea. Ray wouldn’t even mind Tom taking his crew. Tom and the crew take the boat out, and despite running late thanks to late-night escapades with Mabel, Charlie also manages to hop on. Everything is fine, and we get a lot of (almost documentary-like) glimpses of the life of a fisherman, until Tom decides to try their luck out on the Canadian water, where they’re not supposed to go. This goes exactly as you would expect it to go: they get caught by the coast guard, and the boat gets confiscated. What makes it even worse is the fact that Ray is suffering from cancer, something that he was keeping away from Tom (and the audience). The only reason he gave that boat to Tom was because he actually wanted his son to have his most prized possession.
Does Tom Manage To Get His Father’s Boat Back?
It is really hard to criticize a film like Finestkind, where you do have a genuinely engaging story, but the narrative is so muddled that it’s impossible to look away from the flaws. And due to that, the whole experience is not as intense as it is supposed to be. No offense to Ortega, as she does have a great screen presence, but Finestkind would certainly be better off without the romance of Mabel and Charlie. Mabel is only a plot device here, as the drug dealer connection comes through her. But in Helgeland’s own admission, even though he himself never faced any drug-related issues, he has known a lot of fishermen in New Bedford who had to deal with things like that. So the drug subplot in Finestkind could have appeared in any random way, and we certainly didn’t need Ortega’s character for that.
The other big problem is the jarring shifts in tones. It seems like the film often gets confused about the story that it is trying to tell. Is it about the bonding between the brothers? Is it about the parent-child relationship between Ray and Tom? Or is it about the lives of the fishermen in New Bedford? I suppose Helgeland probably got carried away in trying to do all of these in one film and lost focus. And I blame the personal attachment here, because all Finestkind needed was a well-written screenplay to be something exceptional like another Ben Foster starrer, Hell or High Water (2016). Helgeland failed to deliver that, which effectively diminished the value of the film’s genuinely wholesome ending. It would have been much better if Finestkind had a singular focus, either on the relationship between Tom and Charlie or Tom and Ray. We really feel for Tom and the terrible situation he’s in, but that has a lot to do with Foster’s astonishingly brilliant performance. Same goes for the character of Ray, who gets to have the coolest scene in the film, which a performer like Jones totally deserves.
The final act of Finestkind is pretty generic, but it works better than the rest of the film. You could see miles away that Tom, Charlie, and the rest of the crew would get themselves into hot water in order to save Ray’s boat. The drug-dealer (and things going south) plot is a worn-out one, but it’s the one the film chooses to rely on. However, Ray coolly finishing off all the bad guys in order to save his son from all the terrible things in the world is a nice touch. And even though Charlie’s lawyer father coming around with the money to save Finestkind is not the sort of thing we witness in the real world, I would take it for the sake of the emphatic climax. Finestkind was a two-hour slog, so I would say finally seeing Ray happy, Tom at peace, and Charlie screaming his heart out on top of the boat feels like a kind of reward after enduring the whole film.