A big trend in 2020 genre releases has been scary movies that take place on the water, but forsake the traditional aquatic horror tropes. William Eubank’s Underwater is a cautionary tale about what happens when you awaken a sleeping giant; Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House is a Lovecraftian home invasion thriller; Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is a contagion drama that stresses the value of community; and the McManus brothers’ The Block Island Sound applies doomsday conspiracy theories to the mysteries of the vast open blue.
The otherworldly elements don’t really kick into gear until well past the hour mark, but when the sinister hysteria gives way to godlike divine intervention, it becomes clear just how foolish these humans were in buying into the folly that they were the highest tier on the food chain. The Block Island Sound does plant a seed of surrealism in its offbeat opening scene, set out on a boat alone at sea, a man (Neville Archambault) holds on to an empty dog collar and looks out at the infinite blue with wide, bewildered eyes. However, when’s he’s back on dry land, he doesn’t mention a word of his paranoia to his peers, and they chalk his foggy memory up to the ravages of time.
Stories travel at night on the water, and there isn’t a single one of them that Harry (Chris Sheffield) hasn’t heard. His buddy Dale (Jim Cummings) wouldn’t dare dream of letting poor Harry slip out of the local bar without asking him for a ride home and rambling the entire drive back about chemtrails and 9/11 and mind control and lizard people, pausing just long enough to take another drag off of his unfiltered cigarette.
Harry has always been the Scully to Dale’s Mulder, but when Harry’s father, a lifelong fisherman, vanishes from his vessel in the middle of the night, suddenly, the ten tons of fish that inexplicably washed up dead on the beach a few days prior isn’t as easy to brush off. The bird that crashed straight into Harry’s pickup truck seems pretty peculiar. The patches of time Harry keeps losing feel more poignant. Whether it be the government, climate change, the throes of grief, the small-town isolation of the sea, or some monstrous perversion hiding out on the ocean floor, it becomes blatantly obvious that something on the island is messing with the people who inhabit its reach. For Harry, his sister Audry (Michaela McManus), her EPA co-worker Paul (Ryan O’Flanagan) and her pre-teen daughter Emily (Matilda Lawler), their query into the unknown may be an investigation that they embark on a little too late.
As the title implies, The Block Island Sound is all about the Block Island on the east coast, and the strait that lies between it and the mainland. The fact that the entire story is shot on location (with the exception of a few interior scenes on the boat) in the same area where the filmmakers spent a good chunk of their childhood influences the tone of the film dramatically, giving it the feel of a menacing outside force terrorizing this small town under the cover of darkness. Peter Benchley vibes abound, but this was no boating accident, and this was no shark. Something dark and unnatural has come to play.
It’s an extremely well executed directorial feat from brothers Kevin and Matthew McManus, who stealthily lead their viewers down one foreseeable path, only to throw a wrench in the system and abandon ship midway through. It’s a bold and unique narrative, one that’s risky because it makes it difficult to pitch and even harder to review without spoiling all of the surprises at the end. If handled by lesser filmmakers, the material could come across as made with uncertainty, mixing and melting together genres because the person sitting behind the monitor isn’t exactly sure what kind of movie they want to make. However, in this case, it’s exciting to have our expectations subverted, because each twist and turn is meticulously plotted and foreshadowed and successfully played out. Each slight of hand is earned.
The Block Island Sound is a fever dream of a movie, but it is anchored by the relationship between Harry and his sister Audry. The strained but loving chemistry between Sheffield and McManus is one that feels believable, and a familial unit that you want to root for. When Audry moved to the mainland to follow her dreams of working for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Harry stayed behind to take care of their parents. After their mother passed, Harry felt even more pressure to take care of his dad, while the resentment against his sister grew, an absence that’s felt in every conversation the pair struggle to share. Both kids might be doing their best to put their grudges aside and bury the hatchet once and for all, but their reunion proves ill timed as they succumb to the terror that the island has in store.
Alan Gwizdowski’s gorgeous camerawork really takes the film to another level. Sun kissed beer bottles encased in hazy forest green walls. Putrid fish festering in the late bruised sun. Stubborn divers in dark wetsuits made murky in their insignificance. Sandy hair dripping droplets onto blushing starboard bows. Ghoulish grandfathers foaming at the mouth. Rabid drunkards playing at a showdown. Wicked monstrosities lit up by the night sky. The McManus brothers spark an itch for the transcendental, and Gwizdowski scratches it.
The metaphor for the possible disastrous ecological consequences of human activity is clever, if not a little heavy handed. Instead of trusting the audience to catch on to the symbolism at hand, the message is spelled out in a way that comes across as slightly condescending, even if it is well-intentioned. Because this unfortunate coddling is one of the last moments we spend with the film, it works to undermine the gravitas with which the rest of the film was delivered. It leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. Still, the final shot is jarring enough to warrant a true sense of danger in the world, of monsters that walk among us, hiding in plain sight.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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