A film that defies easy classification, Ben Rivers’ debut feature Two Years at Sea blurs the line between experimental film and documentary, employing a meandering, meditative aesthetic that’s as rewarding as it is challenging. A portrait of bushy-bearded Jake Williams, a former seaman who lives alone in a remote part of the Scottish highlands, Rivers’ film was at least partially staged, but it doesn’t really matter. Essentially wordless, Two Years at Sea doesn’t really ask its audience to identify with Jake, and so the question of what is real routine and what is put on for the camera is of little importance.
It can be hard to love a film that’s so deliberately distanced from its ostensible subject — Rivers’ use of close-ups is infrequent and Jake is often pushed to the edges of the frame, if he’s even in it — but Two Years at Sea is often stunningly beautiful in its remove. Comparisons to Bela Tarr are not inapt, as much of the film consists of long takes of Jake performing routine tasks — clearing brush, taking a shower, writing — sometimes punctuated with moments of matter-of-fact absurdity (a camper seemingly nestled at the top of a tree) or stark beauty (a high-angle long take of Jake on a makeshift raft, drifting on a pond slowly out of frame).
The occasional shots of photographs are the only tangible clues to Jake’s previous life, ephemeral connections to people and the past. Ephemerality seems to be one of Rivers’ chief concerns — his delicate 16mm images sometimes seem on the verge of being swallowed whole by darkness in his low-light shots, a feeling never more present than in the film’s mesmerizing final shot, in which Jake sits in front of a fading fire, his face slowly eroding away into the shadows as the flame goes out in front of his eyes.
Two Years at Sea is an unusual and fascinating work, and Cinema Guild has done a spectacular job bringing it to home video with their DVD release. Considering their gorgeous Blu-ray of Tarr’s The Turin Horse, one wishes they could’ve done the same for Rivers’ film (probably not a wise commercial move, I’m sure), but the DVD transfer is as strong as the format allows, replicating the film-like delicacy of the images quite nicely.
Bonus features include two of Rivers’ short films, This is My Land (2006), a sort of prototype for Two Years at Sea that offers a slightly more straightforward portrait of Jake Williams’ isolated life, and I Know Where I’m Going (2009), a serenely apocalyptic consideration of the earth 100 million years from now. The disc also includes nearly 30 minutes of deleted scenes and a selection of trailers for other Cinema Guild releases. Included in the package is an insert with an essay by critic Dennis Lim.