Block Island

The Block Island Sound (2020)

The Block Island Sound has its World Première at Fantasia

The Block Island Sound, the latest feature from writer/directors Kevin and Matthew McManus, opens with a blank screen, accompanied by the cries of seagulls, the soothing waves of an ocean’s lapping waters, and a low, loud animalistic growl that is harder to identify among these otherwise oceanic aural cues. The first thing we actually see is a fishing boat bobbing on the open waters, and a confused Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault, who also starred in the McManus brothers’ 13 Cameras, 2015) waking on its deck, surrounded by dead fish and a dog’s leash (sans dog) hanging over the side – and that monstrous roar again. If the audio and video are for now a little difficult to synthesise, they do involve a pun. For this prologue, unfolding just before the film’s title appears on screen, has included two different kinds of Block Island ‘sound’: both the strait separating the island from America’s north-east coast, and all that noise.

This, as it happens, will be a fitting introduction to a film whose central enigma comes overdetermined with several competing explanations. The interpretative exuberance starts in the first post-title sequence, as Tom’s tightly wound son Harry (Chris Sheffield) is subjected by his drinking buddy Dale (Jim Cummings, Thunder Road, 2018) to a series of biological facts and political conspiracy theories, all concerning mind control. Even as Harry observes how his father has been distracted of late, behaving oddly and going out alone on the boat at night, Harry’s sister Audry (Michaela McManus), a marine biologist for the EPA, returns from the mainland to investigate tonnes of dead fish that have been washing ashore on the island’s West Beach. When tragedy strikes the family, Harry goes off the rails. As a scientist versed in the principle of Occam’s razor,  at first Audry insists on believing “that the most obvious, simple answer is right”: that Harry is suffering understandable grief, inveterate anger issues and a drinking problem that he shares with his father. Yet as Harry becomes ever more erratic and unhinged, and seems to be following his father on a deranged downward spiral, Audry start to suspect that what she is investigating in her professional work may be somehow connected with what is unfolding closer to home. 

“We don’t even know what happened yet,” Harry will tell a concerned Audry – and the viewer is in the same boat, as The Block Island Sound pivots around ambiguities and limited perspectives. We know more than both Harry (who, like Tom, suffers blackouts during his nocturnal excursions) and Audry, but we still lack, at least until the third act, the god’s eye view that will allow all the film’s disparate scenes and all its irrational elements to be made to cohere meaningfully. “Everything connects,” as Dale insists in another of his conspiratorial outbursts – but here it seems to be only the crazier characters who can even begin to connect the narrative dots. Harry’s desire “to get to the bottom of it” just makes him resemble a lab rat stuck in a maze – or a fish caught in a net – unable to comprehend what traps him.

At first The Block Island Sound appears to be swimming in similar waters to Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever (2019) and Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House (2019), but here conflicting explanatory frames – madness, monsters, paranormal activity, parasites – vie with each other, and it takes time for the different pieces of the puzzle to form their bigger picture. Viewers who initially congratulate themselves for being ahead of the hermeneutic game might be surprised to discover that they have been looking in the wrong place for answers – and once the big twist has been revealed in a spectacular coup de théâtre, the McManus’ screenplay reveals its cleverness by replaying in voiceover innocuous-seeming lines of dialogue from much earlier in the film that now take on a new expository power never intended by their speaker. This is a well-tuned, increasingly tense mystery that takes us on a hallucinatory, manipulative trip, and ultimately puts us in our place in a horrific, incomprehensible cosmos.

Strap: Kevin and Matthew McManus’ The Block Island Sound is an increasingly tense fish-out-of-water mystery of manipulation and mind control.

© Anton Bitel