Some films beg to be constrained by the trappings of their respective genres while others flourish when allowed to stroll casually through the aisles, picking up an ingredient here, nutrition checking a substitute there, and trying all the samples...
...Writer/director brothers Kevin and Matthew McManus have crafted something closer to the latter with The Block Island Sound, dabbling in family drama, science-fiction, conspiracies, and familiar thriller tropes. This thematic mélange has become a calling card for this year’s roster at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, where The Block Island Sound just had its World Premiere.
The film unfolds on the titular Block Island, a small hunk of land resting just off the tip of Rhode Island. Harry Lynch (Chris Sheffield) lives on the island with his father Tom (Neville Archambault), a widowed fisherman suffering from increasingly alarming fugue states. The movie opens with Tom awakening from one of these episodes, adrift on his boat, a menacing, inhuman sound emanating from what we could only assume is the sea. The deck is littered with dead fish and life preservers while a solitary animal collar dangles overboard into the murky New England waters.
Things only get stranger when Audry (Michaela McManus), Harry’s sister who works for the EPA, is sent to the island to investigate a rash of dead fish and birds that have been washing up, en masse. In tow with Audry are her daughter Emily (Matilda Lawler) and her assistant Paul (Ryan O’Flanagan). As Audry bears witness to her father’s strange behaviour and fugue states, family tensions and old dynamics begin to rear their heads, notably with Harry as the moody, directionless, and irresponsible baby brother.
The proceedings take a turn when Harry and Audry awaken to find their father and his boat missing. After finding the boat but not the father adrift in the sound, Harry begins a frantic search, convinced his father has met with foul play of some fashion or another while Audry plays the realist, assuming he’s drunk himself right over the side of his boat.
Unconvinced an accident took place, Harry takes the boat back to where it was found, the same strange sound from earlier echoing through the air. Using scuba equipment Harry dives to look for, well, I’m not even sure he knows exactly what he’s looking for, but he finds it in the form of his first and very own black-out episode. The following morning Tom washes up.
Enter a handful of loathsome characters, most notably Audry and Harry’s eldest sister Jen (Heidi Niedermeyer), a real miserable piece of work. As Harry’s own escalating fugue states begin to mirror his father’s, he and Audry embark on a desperate and terrifying search for answers.
Without wading out into the waters of spoiler territory, it must be noted up front that the Brothers McManus have done an excellent job of utilizing subtle misdirection. There are several small and brilliant pieces of misdirection that pay off for the patient viewer. It should also be noted that yes, this is a film that may require patience from the audience. And that patience really all depends on how married you are to your expectations of what the film is going to be. Genre hounds looking for a hard sci-fi or horror outing may come away with periwinkle orbs. The Block Island Sound is more likely to reward those whose sensibilities skew more toward the dynamic.
I, myself, was no exception. After reading the synopsis of Block Island I felt pretty sure of what I was getting myself into. Strange oceanic horror, something with a real X-Files bent, and a heaping helping of menacing figures standing in doorways with mouths agape and a high-pitched cacophony drilling into my eardrums. What I got was a drama of a family with old wounds in a moment of mourning and crisis with a scoop of everything I mentioned previously plopped on top.
While genre fusion is something that’s been around, well, just about forever, it’s seen a bit of an uptick of late in the horror and sci-fi sphere. This year’s Australian slow-burn Relic is the most recent example that comes to mind. The horror is there to be sure and it manages to slither under the skin, but what really puts meat onto the bones is the family story, the history and dynamics that whittle away at the characters and make them susceptible to shadows. It requires an appreciation for both elements, and it’s not for everyone. This manner of storytelling also seems to affirm the notion that the artists behind these stories are children of the genre themselves, and these stories are their attempt to take what they’ve grown up on and evolve it.
Despite its potential and slight subversion of audience expectation, The Block Island Sound is an exceptional if understated piece of filmmaking, overcoming some of its pacing missteps with consistent mood and capable performances. This sound is definitely worth a look and a listen.
By Paul Bauer