Jake Williams barely speaks a word in Two Years at Sea, but he does whistle. In the shower, and while making breakfast, his melodies veer from “Over the Rainbow” to unrecognizable groups of notes—just one of the details that bring life to this film about human isolation. Williams, an old man with an unruly, Tolstoyan beard and long, white hair, lives alone in the middle of a Scottish forest, in a strange conglomeration of a rustic cabin with a larger, run-down chalet. In the yard there’s a broken down trailer, and random objects and junk pile up in every room, drawer, and nook that can fit them. Filmed in 16mm, Two Years at Sea follows Williams’s daily life through the turn of the seasons. With no commentary on his behavior besides the occasional background score, the stillness and silence with which we look upon Williams ranges from curious to unnerving to fascinating.
The film’s look at quotidian routine, the slow passing of time, and the isolated life of an old man recalls Le Quattro Volte, Carcasses, even The Turin Horse. But its embrace of Williams’s loonier eccentricities gives it a unique spark. Although Williams’s life—bereft of human contact in a harsh natural landscape—could easily lend itself to apocalyptic or primordial readings, director Ben Rivers (who previously made a short film about Williams) avoids such hyper-philosophical musings. His approach, in as much as a film given to long shots of nature allows for it, is playful. For example, a surprising magical-realist twist provides a dose of wonder and mystery to the proceedings, and Williams’s reaction, a mix of awe and confusion, is wonderfully charming.
Two Years at Sea presents Williams’s life through a series of disconnected chapters, each recounting a particular journey or chore. The result can feel needlessly disjointed, particularly as one tries to construct a thematic, if not narrative, connection between the various vignettes. But a beautiful, complex portrait of Williams emerges nonetheless. He shows no traces of pathos or world-weariness, going about his daily work with the absolute determination of a man who hasn’t only embraced his life, but sees nothing abnormal about it. He even appears to genuinely enjoy life, and his exuberance gives the film moments of unexpected lightness.
In one scene, Williams takes an air mattress, four water jugs, and a square wooden frame to a nearby pond, where he constructs a makeshift raft. After haphazardly rowing out a few feet, he lies down and lets the raft float aimlessly. The contrast between Williams’s concentrated work and the mundane outcome is almost comical, and it exemplifies the film’s major strength: endearing us to Williams through his quirks rather than by connecting his life to a larger question about, say, the exhausting rush of urban living. That question and others, about what thoughts go through Williams’s head and what inner logic drives him, emerge here and there, but only in the back of our minds. The core of the movie rightly belongs to its sole character: Jake Williams, who barely says a word, but can’t stop from whistling.