Mladen and Del review ‘The Block Island Sound’

Image courtesy of Netflix.

“The Block Island Sound” Starring Chris Sheffield, Michaela McManus, Matilda Lawler, Neville Archambault, and others. Directed by Kevin McManus and Matthew McManus. 99 minutes. Unrated. Netflix.

Mladen’s take

Del warned me to avoid spoilers when I recapitulate the plot of “The Block Island Sound” because the film relies on keeping the source of the troubles endured by our protagonists secret.

So, here are a couple of sayings to help you meander through this review while I try to explain what the sci-fi-like, horror-ish “The Block Island Sound” is about without giving away the neat ending. To appreciate the ending, by the way, be sure to pay attention to the beginning of the movie. It’s the scene between mother and daughter talking about studying animals.

I’m borrowing the first indirect explanation of “The Block Island Sound” storyline from a couple of Star Trek movies: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” I believe that’s a Spockism.

Then there’s “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” I have no idea where that saying originated.

The movie also portrays and warns about doing onto others, in this case marine fish, what you wouldn’t want done unto you. That truism is derived from the Bible or some other piece of historical fiction.

“The Block Island Sound” is a slo-mo film that constantly has the viewer wondering what the hell is going on. By slo-mo I mean action is limited and the story unfolds through the tension of a family that doesn’t get along. There are a couple of drunkards, the father and the son; a smart and altruistic sister and her cute daughter; an unempathetic and punitive sister; and a dead mother.

Other characters in the film are the gossip and law enforcement attitudes of a small, somewhat isolated community. A kook expounding all sorts of conspiracies about the Government, parasites, and I can’t recall what else is in the movie, too.

Semi-mass dyings of fish and birds and an apparition are also parts of the story.

“The Block Island Sound” takes place in the American Northeast, somewhere in the vicinity of Nantucket. The sea is blue-gray, as is the sky. The movie’s moodiness is similar to “The Vast of Night” or “Cosmos.”

The acting is good, even if the smart sister seems to be dumb occasionally though she’s a scientist. Chris Sheffield, playing emotionally tortured Harry, executes again and again some one of the finest examples of walking catatonia, the vacant stare and slackened face, the blank expression, a hypnotic state, describe it as you wish, I’ve seen in a movie.

Be patient watching “The Block Island Sound.” Everything is tied together at the end in pretty cool fashion. Disregard, to some degree, the family dysfunction that’s regurgitated throughout the film. It annoyed me, but I hung on until the credits rolled to see what caused the strangeness on the island and its local waters.

“The Block Island Sound” earns a B, just scraping past a B-, from me.

Del’s take

I won’t be as charitable as Mladen in grading “The Block Island Sound.” The movie was a tad schizophrenic for my tastes.

To amplify Mladen’s plot summary, the story is about a man caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father at the ancestral home on an island somewhere in the Northeast. His sister, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, returns to the island with her daughter to study a series of bird and fish kills. When the father turns up missing and then deceased, another daughter, the bitchier of the two sisters, joins her siblings for the funeral. The brother resents his sisters for abandoning him to the care of their father. And now he’s seeing things. He’s drinking heavily. He’s falling apart.

For the most part the movie is competently made, and casting and script are fine (faint praise). My gripe is with the metastory. There are two stories at work here, and the McManus brothers do a much better job of telling one. The second story is not original in content or presentation.

Most interesting is the interaction between the siblings, all finely drawn by the actors. Sheffield does a good job as Harry, the suffering son who has remained behind to take care of his dementia-addled father while his two sisters pursue their lives unencumbered by familial obligations. McManus and Heidi Niedermeyer are equally effective as the two sisters who have left their ailing father in the hands of their brother, then snottily fault him for crumbling under the pressure of caregiving. The interplay between these three is sufficiently interesting to compel a watch, despite the fact that none of them is very likeable.

And the second story? It emerges slowly over the course of the action, until sometime in the second act when the climax is telegraphed, resulting in an anti-climax to wrap that branch of the narrative and the movie itself.

As many character studies go, the pacing of “The Block Island Sound” is slow, abetted by a depressing color palette of grays and steely blues, always cloudy skies, and a choppy Atlantic Ocean that does not give up its secrets. Likewise the tone is dark and funereal. You are watching the dissolution of a family as much as a mystery about dying fish and crows flying into windshields.

My sense is the overarching thematic imperative is one of loss – loss of soul due to the escalating infirmity of cognitive decline, loss of life on the part of those in the caregiver role, loss of empathy for those who have shirked their responsibilities and in the end, loss of humanity.

That’s a lot to digest in a movie that’s pitched in its trailer as being about something more congruent with a horror movie. Who wants to be entertained by grim reality when there’s a fun universe of exploding heads to be explored?

If the McManus brothers had left out the fish kills, bird kills and all the nonsense that followed, “The Block Island Sound” would have earned a B+ from me. As it is, the movie gets a C.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.


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