Two Years at Sea lives up to its title in at least one respect. Narratively and visually, it feels shapeless and adrift across its 86 minutes—as unmoored as the lifestyle of the film's one lone character, who carves out a deliberately solitary existence in a forest and is apparently named Jake according to filmmaker Ben Rivers, but whose name isn't explicitly mentioned in the film.
Why does Jake (played by Rivers himself) choose to live his life this way, cutting himself off from human contact altogether? Rivers, a British experimental filmmaker who makes his feature-film debut with Two Years at Sea, drops some clues here and there. Every once in a while, he shows us snapshots from what one can infer is Jake's previous life: photographs of the man with his family, standing in front of the house in which he's now living, and so on. But as far as context goes, that's about all a viewer has to go on—at least, other than Jake's own behavior and habits as he carries out this lifestyle. And that, it seems, is what Rivers is more interested in anyway.
Not that anything else should necessarily matter, though, when the particulars of Jake's lifestyle are rendered as mesmerically as they are here—especially in deliberately grainy black-and-white 16mm cinematography, shot by Rivers himself, that gives a dreamy visual texture to the landscapes Jake wanders around in. Its visual beauties aren't the only things going for it though.
It's best to approach Two Years at Sea as an environmental immersion more than anything else. Jake's—and, by extension, the filmmaker's—chosen environment is, basically, nature in something close to its pure, unadulterated form, free of human intrusion. Surely immersing ourselves in nature in such a wholehearted manner will transform the way one views the world around us, allowing us to notice things in our environment in ways that we may not always perceive in a urban or suburban environment; in other words, the kind of environment in which we in the audience would most likely see a film like this.
At its best, Rivers's film embodies that profoundly open mindset. So, for instance, he will frequently, in a given setting (even one as mundane as Jake's kitchen), cut randomly between different objects and/or views from mirrors and windows. These montages don't advance a plot in any significant way; these are just details that he apparently finds interesting enough to highlight. But Rivers isn't just interested in bombarding us with environmental detail; he also wants to envelop us in Jake's meditative, slowed-down lifestyle.
To that end, he also experiments with shot durations, and, in doing so, comes up with some remarkable moments. One of the more memorable of them comes in the middle of the film, with one lengthy take devoted to Jake's efforts to ride a boat out to the middle of a body of water. In a fixed wide shot encompassing both some of the land in the foreground and some of the mountains in the background, we see Jake painstakingly preparing his boat to sail in the left-hand side of the frame; the camera remains fixed as he slowly paddles his way to the middle of the body of water/frame. Rivers brilliantly exploits our curiosity about Jake's intentions by refusing to cut away while he does all this; as a result, the process acquires an unexpected level of suspense as to its outcome. Finally, Jake gets to his "destination," so to speak, and then just sits there, not moving, letting the boat float around—and, in a cute visual joke, he allows it to float to the right side of the frame until Jake paddles it back to the middle just as the boat is about to hit the edge of that frame.
The effect of this contrast between noisy preparation and pure silence is transcendentally peaceful; Rivers, in one unbroken shot, manages to convey both a sense of struggle to find an inner peace, and the beautiful end result of that struggle. In a sense, this shot conveys the essence of Two Years at Sea in one revelatory take, suggesting everything one needs to know about why someone like Jake—who, at a couple of points, is seen reading for pleasure while in his self-imposed exile, implying a certain thoughtfulness and intelligence on his part—would undertake such a lifestyle.
If most of Two Years at Sea is about the particulars of Jake's lifestyle, the equally remarkable concluding shot ends it with a contemplation of Jake himself. Here, the camera captures a medium close-up of his face as he sits in front of a fire, with the light from that fire illuminating his face amid the pitch black of the night surrounding him. He sits…and sits…and sits. Rivers doesn't invite us to understand what it is he's actually contemplating—and it doesn't matter, really. Instead, it's that trance-like sense of stillness he aims to capture. For Jake, his sense of peace is so hypnotic that eventually he drifts off to sleep—and as he drifts off to sleep, the fire slowly dies out, the illuminating light from that fire dying with it. Essentially, as he dozes off, so does the fire. Two Years at Sea ends in complete darkness—but for this viewer, at least, the image doesn't suggest the dark of an empty soul, but that of a soul at some kind of inner peace.
Rivers, by the way, has two new short films, Sack Barrow and Slow Action, playing on one program on Friday afternoon as part of the New York Film Festival's Views from the Avant-Garde program. After Two Years at Sea, which closes out the program this weekend with a screening on Monday night, I eagerly look forward to seeing what other places/state of minds he has explored.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.