Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 4, 2021
Can a Rhode Island fishing family avoid ending up as Catch of the Day? That is the question posed in The Block Island Sound, an ominous maritime mystery conceived by Matthew and Kevin McManus, previously noted for writing several episodes of Netflix true-crime mockumentary American Vandal.
This is a movie that only reluctantly divulges information, and the dangling possibilities we’re left with are not the least bit comforting. If you dig ambivalence and an atmosphere of constant dread, you’ll be hooked like a mackerel in no time.
Consequently, viewers who prefer plausible scenarios may not have the patience to navigate these treacherous waters.
Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault), a hard-drinking boat captain, and his son Harry (Chris Sheffield), make their livings pulling fish from the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds their Block Island home.
About the same time that Tom starts sleepwalking and blacking out, dead fish wash up on the beaches in record numbers. Tom’s daughter, Audry (Michaela McManus), a single mom who works for the EPA, arrives on the island—with her own kid (Matilda Lawler) in tow—to investigate the phenomenon.
It doesn’t take Audry long to notice that something is amiss with both the marine life and her pappy. Her daughter Emily wakes up screaming with Tom looming over her in the darkness. Tom subsequently disappears at sea and his boat is found abandoned.
Be advised that the Brothers McManus do their best to distract and mislead the viewer by dropping plenty of red herrings, such as having the local police chief (Willie Carpenter) suggest to Harry that his father was no stranger to booze cruises.
When Harry experiences his own black-out symptoms, Audry and her less-pleasant sister Jen (Heidi Niedermeyer) discuss the notion that madness may run in the family—and that something will have to be done about it.
The middle section of The Block Island Sound takes a tonal detour, concerning itself with the mundane details of mourning the family patriarch, and the further disintegration of Harry. The formerly stoic fisherman has become extremely agitated by nocturnal visits from the recently deceased Tom, commanding him to bring domestic and wild animals to the boat, and not in a nice, orderly, Noah’s Ark manner.
Like his father before him, Harry awakens out at sea with nary a clue. Audry and Jen worry about their brother’s erratic behavior but are at a loss for solutions.
Whenever Harry starts doubting his own sanity, his drinking buddy Dale (Jim Cummings) appears to aggregate all the weird stuff that’s happening right under their noses on Block Island. Top-secret experiments, the presence of nearby wind turbines, sea monsters, government agents, weather anomalies, all get a day in conspiracy court.
Later, Audry meets Kurt (Jeremy Horn), a reclusive local who shares her brother’s time-loss affliction. He in turn points her in a completely different direction, and urges Audry to grab her family and leave the island.
Instead, everyone ends up on the boat.
Strangely enough, the closest thing to a reasonable explanation comes when Audry reassures Emily about the necessity of environmental research.
“Most of the fish we take out of the water, we put right back in just a few days later,” Audry tells her daughter. “We’re studying them so we can get to know them better. So we can help them better.
Emily protests that some fish don’t survive the experience.
“By taking some brave fish out of the water and learning about them, we can eventually help all the other fish,” Audrey concludes. “It’s a good thing we’re doing.”
Evidently, we’re not the only ones conducting experiments in the universe. As mentioned, the exact nature of the menace, whether aquatic, extra-terrestrial, or weirdly scientific, is never specified.
But the implications offered by The Block Island Sound are more than enough to take seafood off the menu for a while.