BLOCK AND AWE
The Block Island Sound (15)
Review: RJ Bland
Most human beings feel safest on land. We realise that feels like bit of a clumsy thing to say but it's true. On top of that land as well we might add, as descending beneath it makes most of us feel queasy too (and not just because of the fear of crawlers). The same can be said for the sea and the sky. Two places that humans have conquered to some small degree but where a lot of us still feel a sense of unease. The ocean in particular almost feels like an alien planet. Heck, we've only actually explored 5% of it all! There is something hypnotic and beautiful about it (obviously) but it's also deep and mysterious and dangerous. Perhaps that's part of the fascination. A number of films have attempted to tap into this deep rooted fear over the years. Jaws (1975) is perhaps the most famous example – although obviously the fact there's a giant shark swimming around has something to do with it. Since then we've had Underwater (2020), Triangle (2009), Below (2002) and The Boat (2018). And whilst it's not technically set at sea, The Block Island Sound is the latest film to add to offer up some aquatic chills.
On a small island called Block Island (Near Rhode Island), there are some strange things going down. Fish are washing up dead on the beach by the tonne and birds are falling out of the sky. However wildlife isn't the only thing suffering – with local fisherman Tom being plagued by a strange booming sound that appears to be altering his behaviour, much to the concern of his son Harry. Tom's daughter Audrey, an EPA researcher, visits the island with her daughter, to investigate the strange deaths of the local animal populations. However she soon realises that there is something not right about her father too. His forgetfulness and clumsiness are a concern – but his sleepwalking and accidental self harm and taking his boat out late at night for no reason, are more worrying still. Harry has been trying to keep his father's mental decline a secret but he soon starts to wonder if his father's behaviour is natural – or if there is something more sinister going on...
The Block Island Sound successfully manages to traverses several sub-genres. The film morphs between eco, psychological and aquatic horror with relative ease and the result is a rather intoxicating at times. Although it doesn't feel quite as overtly Lovecraftian as features such as The Beach House, it's definitely inflected with that cosmic horror vibe that seems to be gaining popularity once again. The budget may be small so the film eschews grand visuals and big effects and instead puts most its energy and focus into trying to engender a creeping sense of anxiety and dread. In the same way that the (rather brilliant) Pontypool (2008) managed to build a sense of impending doom through the use of audio and anticipation, The Block Island Sound manages to captivate and engage through implied threat and the sheer quality of its central performances. Chris Sheffield's tortured performance is especially good and although Harry not the easiest character to like, there's no doubt that we're rooting for him as his world starts to crumble around him. The family dynamic feels grounded and imperfect too, which makes all of the mystical stuff a bit more palatable.
Beneath the surface level world of conspiracies and the supernatural, it offers some interesting parallels. It seems pretty vogue at the moment to work in something about mental health/decline but The Block Island Sound at least does this in a somewhat understated manner. The idea of inheriting issues from previous generations is one that's used here in relation to health and on a wider planetary level too. The latter – the disastrous effect that the human race is having on nature itself - is a little less subtle, but arguably more what the film is interested in talking about.
Cinematographer Alan Gwizdowski gives us something that's visually arresting too. During the day, things feel laid back and dreamy and safe – even though we rarely linger for too long on seascapes and skylines. However when the sun goes down, the island feels claustrophobic. And although there isn't anything truly terrifying, we are still given a handful of jolts and a few images that are nightmarish enough to rattle.
Some will argue that we don't get enough of a payoff for all of the careful build up. Indeed some may grow a little tired of all of the mood building that takes place in the first hour or so. We do feel like we're in second gear for a long time. Yet The Block Island Sound still manages to finish things rather smartly and leaves us with something that's both resonant and thought-provoking, if a little flat in terms of action.