It's amazing how much some solid writing and great performances can lift a film. A few minutes into Islander, I was ready to give up on it. One of the film's early scenes continually brought me out of the moment with distracting shots and edits. Two characters watch on in close-ups that don't feel at all organic to the wide shots in rest of the scene, in which fisherman turn in their daily catch. The visuals aren't completely amateurish by any means--certain individual shots are even quite lovely--but their clunky assembly belied the film's low budget, and I prepared to suffer through an awkward 100 minutes.
But then something surprising happened. I started to become genuinely involved in the characters, their fragile natures and uncertain futures. The small Maine island community in which the film takes place came to life, as did Eben, a troubled man played by Thomas Hildreth.
Frustrated by mainland fishermen encroaching on the island territory, Eben foolishly goes out one morning to threaten them and a tragedy occurs that forever changes his life. The bulk of the film takes place five years later, when Eben returns from exile and attempts to reassemble the life he had to leave. His wife (Amy Jo Johnson), who isn't originally from the island, has moved in with another man, and the rest of the townspeople have shunned Eben, partly based on the orders of his now-late father.
The always reliable Philip Baker Hall plays Popper, an old friend of Eben's father. Popper is a ship builder who only fishes every few days, but when he does go out, he lets Eben back on the boat to do what he loves. With the help of Popper and the island doctor, Emily (Judy Prescott), Eben manages to pick up the pieces of his life.
Hildreth produced and cowrote the film with director Ian McCrudden, and the two succeed by letting their characters be people. Once through with the initial setup, the filmmakers simply observe how they react to the difficult situations they're in. There's no false drama or forced confrontations--just a man trying to make the most of himself after losing everything and a community coming to terms with his reappearance.
I don't think there's much wrong with the transfer on Indican Pictures' DVD, but the film itself isn't visually perfect. Certain shots are quite beautiful as they capture the interplay of light and water, but in others the lighting feels flat and slapdash. Interior shots fare worse, and the uneven desaturation of skin tones makes the characters look like zombee in a couple scenes. For long stretches, the film looks great, then unexpectedly awkward moments of bad picture pull you momentarily out of the film. The DVD preserves the gloomy tone of the film's best moments well, however, and this is about the best you can expect it to look.
While the English audio track is generally professional, the limited budget and resources are sometimes audible. Certain lines are muffled, and the Maine accents don't make the dialogue easier to understand. Optional English subs would have been nice to flip on for hard-to-hear lines, but alas, none are included. Also, what I believe to be the layer-change-break takes place during some rather loud ambient noise (about 15 seconds before the 81-minute mark), making it more distracting than it needed to be.
The World of Islander section features two short features, one about the film and one about the culture it portrays. The first is Maine Things Considered, a radio interview with McCrudden and Hildreth conducted prior to the film's screening at the Maine International Film Festival. Stills from the film, some of which look blocky, accompany the audio. Second, the rambling The Island Institute compiles a series of interviews about an organization dedicated to preserving the islanders' way of life, and requests that we donate to help in the effort. It, too, consists entirely of still photos, some of which don't look so hot.
The deleted scenes include a throwaway moment featuring some oldtimers sitting around talking, a sequence in which Eben goes fishing and bonds with Emily's son, Wyatt, and a scene in which Emily asks Eben about the fateful day of the accident.
The theatrical trailer is a fairly standard one that gives away as much of the movie as possible. The disc also contains trailers for other Indican Pictures releases.
The audio commentary with McCrudden and Hildreth suffers from large patches of silence, made worse because the film audio is slightly out-of-synch. (This isn't an issue on the main feature track, but when entire scenes go by without comment, we might as well watch the movie, and the audio makes that more difficult.) When they do talk, they share some insights on their creative choices and shooting on location on the island, including many settings that were shot as-is, without elaborate set dressings. The information would have been better distilled into a featurette that didn't take as long to watch.
Despite its imperfections, Islander is an engrossing study of both a fascinating character and a rarely seen way of life. While the extras aren't stunning, this disc does the film justice.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.