By ISAAC FELDBERG
Starring Chris Sheffield, Michaela McManus and Neville Archambault
Written and directed by Matthew McManus and Kevin McManus
30 Bones Cinema/Hood River Entertainment
“Are you all right?” the local doctor asks Harry (Chris Sheffield), whose eyes remain involuntarily downcast after a full-body panic attack in the MRI. Then, more sensibly, she rephrases: “Have you calmed down?”
Two very different lines of questioning, they together sum up Matthew and Kevin McManus’ THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND (now world-premiering at the Fantasia International Film Festival) as an intensely disquieting little picture attuned most to that slow-grown horror of acceptance, about how we can become horribly conscious of forces beyond our control, without that awareness giving us a say over how they control us. Mostly, it’s just better not to know, because once the truth has its hooks in you, there’s no going back, no matter how hard you struggle.
All of this is to say upfront that, with its focus on family and flickers of otherworldly menace, THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND can be read as a film about the Pandora’s box of grief, opening on the loss of a patriarch before charting the death of innocence that inevitably follows that kind of cataclysm, a cast stone that makes ripples in water. We meet Harry mid-reckoning with the health of his old-salt father Tom (Neville Archambault), a Block Island fisherman whose mental state is deteriorating while dead fish wash up on shore and birds fall out of the sky. Harry already felt claustrophobic on the island, a 7,000-acre dot off the coast of Rhode Island where there’s only one local watering hole and a handful of regulars, but he chose to stay–for Tom, he’d tell you–even after sister Audry (Michaela McManus, coolly capable) departed for a life of her own on the mainland, working for the EPA. (The siblings resent each other for these choices, even if out of love, but they’re a more unified front in concern for their ailing dad.) But once Tom vanishes from his fishing boat, Harry is suddenly gripped by the sensation that something out of sight is pulling the strings, and that a terrible fate may have befallen Tom.
Whatever anyone tells you, losing a family member or even the threat of it is unnatural and disorienting, and can habituate you to thinking like that, as if the possibilities of your life have been abruptly revealed to be a lie–that, actually, you’re just a plaything in someone else’s universe, and always have been. If the specter of loss can build walls around your mind and box you in, it also suggests something tapping on the glass of that enclosure, looking in. Early in the film, Audry’s young daughter (Matilda Lawler) asks about her mom’s work studying aquatic life, after patrolling a beach littered with fish corpses. “Most of the fish we take out of the water we put right back in, just a few days later,” says Audry. “We’re learning about them. We’re studying them so we can get to know them better.” But what about the ones that die? Audry has an answer–that it’s for the greater good, that it’s a noble thing they’re doing–but it’s not one those fish probably like much.
Sheffield, whose Harry is often under such psychic pressure he seems to be gasping for air, plays him as a good son tortured by his father’s absence, trapped in the not-knowing. He’s especially strong at evoking the invisible weights of guilt and shame hanging around this young man’s neck, the words left unsaid and obligations unfulfilled. Sheffield’s good enough, in fact, to sell the story’s second-act shift from Tom–played ably by Archambault, an imposing ox of an actor whose weaponized sweats and groans intimate a man holding his fraying internal threads together through sheer force of will–to Harry, as he begins to experience delusions of his own and unnerve both Audry and her daughter. A mid-film moment in which Harry breaks down in front of Audry, confessing deep-seated regrets about how he handled Tom’s condition, proves an unexpected dramatic high point. Tom, we learn, is a heavy drinker, and Harry has picked up that coping mechanism; something is made of how this chemical self-flagellation only serves to isolate both men, from each other as well as the more level-headed Audry, but it’s ultimately cast aside as the film ratchets up its ideas of an external presence spurring Harry toward sinister ends in the slightly rushed third act.
The McManus brothers (best known for writing Netflix’s gone-too-soon mockumentary series AMERICAN VANDAL, though their first film, FUNERAL KINGS, premiered internationally at Fantasia in 2012) grew up in Warwick, RI, and THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND has clearly been constructed to let them play with the insular titular setting as a home base for happenings eerie and inexplicable. Casting their sister in a lead role only drives home that this is a family affair, and its tone does carry a native’s view of New England as a cold and forbidding place, haunted by the depths of its history.
Another nice touch–and one reminiscent of this year’s THE BEACH HOUSE, set in nearby Cape Cod–is the film’s treatment of Block Island as a tiny outpost dwarfed by the surrounding Atlantic, dependent on this ancient maw to tolerate the fishing and boating expeditions that natives require to make a living. Kubrickian zooms capture the island’s bluffs and shoreline as alternately impassive and strangely vulnerable, in danger of being washed away by the crashing, hungry tide. The title is perfect, referencing the 10-mile-wide strait that separates Block Island from the mainland while also teeing up the monstrous distortions Harry hears, often emanating from the oily-black mouth of his father, who appears as an apparition; when you start hearing things in a place as remote as this, it’s time to worry, and you’re right to feel exposed.
THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND is a reunion for many of the above-and-below-line players from 2015’s considerably nastier 13 CAMERAS; the McManus brothers produced that one, with Archambault starring and Michaela McManus and Jim Cummings (who plays Harry’s chatterbox drinking buddy Dale) among the background performers. One obvious thread between the two involves surveillance, the goosebumps that can gather along the back of your neck even before it becomes clear that someone is watching. Both films also share a nicely restrained atmosphere, a certain hermetic quality that suggests bugs under a magnifying glass, or fish in a barrel.
Peter Koch’s bludgeoning, ominous score further seals the characters in, an otherworldly foghorn that warns of hazards ahead while advising against any foolish attempt at brinkmanship with the unknown. That doctor diagnoses Harry with “electromagnetic sensitivity,” suggesting he chuck his TV and relocate to East Greenwich, a sort-of “dead zone” where he’ll be less plagued by mental noise; a native to the bone, he digs in his heels. “They can take down the goddamn turbines,” he says, assuming his anguish is the fault of some human interference with the natural world. “I was here first.” Later, he’ll get smarter and look to the skies for answers, and the effect is of a man clutching the rope that’s hanging him, beseeching some higher power to intercede or get it over with.
Undercutting the film’s air of dread and encroaching loss is an unfortunate insistence on overexplaining its mysteries, mostly through two stock, if gamely performed, supporting players. With his broad shoulders and somehow broader grin, AMERICAN VANDAL’s Ryan O’Flanagan (most familiar to this writer as one of the only Internet comedians to get a decent joke off in/about quarantine) https://twitter.com/ryanoflan/status/1257362452880281601 is a mightily appealing screen presence, but his character–Paul, Audry’s employee and requisite love interest–is strictly functional, whether serving as a sounding board for Audry as her brother unravels or posing rational explanations for what could be decimating the local wildlife. Chewing up a more entertaining (and twice as expository) role, the ever-welcome Cummings plays Dale, a tin-foil conspiracy theorist, as a smart-alecky bundle of nerves.
Some of Dale’s theories (including a particularly bananas one linking the wreck of the Palatine https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-legend-of-the-ghost-ship-palatine/ to government-issued vaccines) are played for anarchic comedy that feels beamed in from another, more tongue-in-cheek version of this story, but all the red herrings ultimately distract from THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND’s uncanny vibe. This one’s at its best simply staring out into the dark expanses of the sound, aware that whatever’s out there is going to reveal itself, sooner or later. The final scene drives home its makers’ design with a repeated-line voiceover so unnecessary it feels like watching someone hammer a nail through a board hard enough to split it, which is a shame, but this is otherwise a well-constructed psychological horror vessel, chilly and personal in the right places, keyed into a frequency that’s hard to shake long after its waters become still once more.