Fantasia 2020 Review: THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND Will Have Your Skin Crawling From The First Frame
It's often been said that the sea is the last great unexplored wilderness on Earth. We've tried to tame it, understand it, capitalize on it, but it never fails that at least once a year humanity discovers another seemingly impossible creature or phenomenon spawned from the deep, making it infinitely fertile ground for horror. But it's not only what lurks beneath the waves that remains so mysterious, it's the unending vastness of even the most milquetoast bodies of water that holds our attention and can lead to terror like we have never seen. In The McManus Brothers (American Vandal, Cobra Kai) new feature, The Block Island Sound, the titular Rhode Island strait is the setting for increasingly unsettling events that threaten to tear a family apart, that is, if they aren't literally torn apart by whatever seems to be stalking them first.
Harry Lynch's (Chris Sheffield) father seems a bit out of sorts lately. After a late night fishing excursion, Dad (Neville Archambault) comes home not-quite-right. He stares off into space, has delusions, fits of rage, and other emotional outbursts atypical of this lifelong, stoic islander. When he turns up drowned on the beach near the family home, Harry and his sisters start to wonder what happened. While his sisters put it off to early onset dementia or an accident, Harry is less charitable with his assumptions. He goes out to see to find what took his father, but he comes back equally changed, with more questions than answers, and perhaps he brought something back with him.
The McManus brothers, Kevin and Matthew, bring a solid writing and producing resume to their sophomore directing effort, and it shows. Not a project built on cheap scares, The Block Island Sound relies on subtly building dread and tension to unsettle its audience, leaving us gripping our armrests with white knuckles waiting for the film to finally let us in on its sinister secrets.
Chris Sheffield leads the cast as the obsessed Harry, desperately seeking the truth about what happened to his father, dragging his family along with him. When his sisters begin to worry about him, he starts shutting down, antagonizing them for not caring enough. The only thing still tethering him to the real world is his niece (Matilda Lawler) and her mother, Audry (Michaela McManus), who is puzzled and fascinated by a recent spate of massive fish die-offs in the area. Could her background in marine biology come in handy? Of course it does, but never in the ways you expect.
Central to the success of a film like this, where plot elements are relatively sparse, and the story a bit hard to pin down, is the technical execution. Without a compelling aural and visual landscape on which to paint the story, it would be meandering, perhaps even feel meaningless at times. But the technical crew does an excellent job of keeping the audience rapt throughout. While the Sound of the film's title is a literal body of water, in this case if also is evocative of the dread-inducing sound design, mournful drones punctuate the film, at first leaving the audience to wonder if their are diegetic or meant only to frighten us on this side of the screen. The visuals are equally unsettling, with everything just a bit off kilter, leaving us to search for clues in their imperfections.
The Block Island Sound is a well constructed puzzle box of a movie, slowly feeding its audiences pieces of crucial information in ways that could easily pass undetected. When things come together, it's a bit like the sky opens up and reveals its intentions to you, but you really should've seen it coming all along. I found the ending of the film satisfying in the way it drew all of the disparate threads together, from Harry's journey to discover what became of his father, to even the most seemingly insignificant morsels of information fed to us having greater meaning than we were prepared to grapple with. If you're expecting a monster movie, you might be disappointed at the lack of blood and guts, but if you'll open your mind, The Block Island Sound just might scare the hell out of you.