Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

In the untamed wilderness, David Strathairn shows Vanessa Martinez how a fish trap works. A wire box with a wide entrance leads salmon through a funnel to the cage. Once there, they can't get back.

John Sayles' script uses the fish trap metaphor by introducing, like so many ensemble movies, a varied cast of characters, while taking sidelong glances at the location - Juneau, Alaska, with its silver waters and majestic backdrop - before narrowing down to three and leaving them in a place from which they cannot escape.

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His ability to create flawed romantics with brooding secrets that lurk in the shadow of danger is remarkable. His dialogue does not rely on one-liners, rather an innate intelligence. Also, he is a natural storyteller.

Joe (Strathairn) lives with the knowledge that two men drowned when his boat sank 20 years ago. He carries the memory like a dead dog. Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a singer, moving from man to man, town to town, an itinerant optimist, with a history of bad choices. Her teenage daughter, Noelle (Martinez), has the judgement of youth, disturbed in her loneliness and yet closer to the way it is. Joe seems self-sufficient and dependable. Donna has a brittle edge to her been-there attitude. Their liaison takes them out on Joe's half brother's boat, with Noelle as a reluctant passenger, to meet "clients" up north, where the story moves into a different mode and takes on serious emotional ballast.

The film is so cleverly constructed, you are not aware of the trap until you are in it and the performances have a strength that cuts through pretence to where reaction evokes deep feelings, building upon layers of experiece.

Strathairn has become the consummate Saylesman, having appeared in six previous films. His sensitivity to the text is transparent. Mastrantonio has a great singing voice and a repertoire of foxy smiles, while Martinez, who made her debut in Lone Star, conveys the negativity of a girl who has learnt to live with lies beautifully.

This is the best thing from Sayles since The Secret Of Roan Inish. He continues to surprise.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Ensemble drama about secrets in smalltown Alaska.
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Director: John Sayles

Writer: John Sayles

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson, Casey Siemaszko, Dawn McInturff, Kathryn Grody, Tom Biss

Year: 1999

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 1999

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