Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Wild hiking into theaters, we’ve lined up a series of films about people braving the great outdoors.
The title of Two Years At Sea refers to a bygone chapter in the life of Jake Williams, a loner who once worked as a merchant seaman before retreating to the total seclusion of rural Scotland. Not that one could guess any of that without a Google search: Little to no context is provided by this work of (lightly fictionalized) nonfiction, which declines not just to interview its only human subject, but also to mention his name, reveal anything about his backstory, or identify the verdant land he now calls home. For his first feature, British avant-garde filmmaker Ben Rivers revisits the protagonist of an earlier short (2006’s “This Is My Land”), chronicling the mostly mundane details of his solitary lifestyle. Over what looks like four distinct seasons, the bearded hermit takes long walks through the woods, digs through old belongings, and washes himself in a makeshift shower of his own design. Nothing much happens, but it doesn’t happen beautifully, on black-and-white 16mm—a format whose rough, imperfect textures prove ideal for capturing the jagged splendor of an untouched wilderness.
Hardly the most traditional of documentarians, Rivers sometimes casts real backdrops as fantastical worlds, locating a kinship between natural history and imaginative science fiction. But while the boonies of Scotland are as majestically alien as any other remote landscape, Two Years At Sea was made more in the tradition of Nanook Of The North. Like that early milestone of nonfiction filmmaking, it sometimes uses recreations to depict the act of “roughing it,” blending simulated activity—the “impromptu” building of a raft, for example—with pure observation. To see how this outsider really fills his waking hours, a schedule devoid of human interaction, Rivers would have needed to film him unawares. The camera is more company than Williams is accustomed to.
Two Years At Sea is also a character study, but a deeply enigmatic one: Rivers plants evidence—photographs of unnamed family members, snippets of songs first heard in another lifetime—like pieces of a puzzle that never come together. When, late in the film, Williams hunches over a fire, flickers of light illuminating his weathered features, a viewer can’t help but search them for clarity. Who is this man, and why would he choose to separate himself from the rest of the species? No answers arrive, but one does get attuned to the rhythms of a life lived on the fringe of civilization—a place where liberation and loneliness are as entwined as the roots of a mighty oak.
Availability: Two Years At Sea is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Amazon or your local video store/library, and to stream on Fandor.