AUTOMATIC AT SEA Review: Tropical Maladies

Matthew Lessner's cold, creeping thriller is an unnerving retreat into unreality.

On the surface, Matthew Lessner's Automatic At Sea possesses the most threadbare of plots: a pretty Swedish traveler (Livia Hiselius) finds herself trapped on a private island with an American heir (David Henry Gerson), and slowly loses her ability to distinguish between reality and fiction. The horrific tropes Lessner is toying with as a writer/director have developed over the course of numerous "woman in trouble" narratives; from Roman Polanski's Repulsion ('65), to Matt Cimber's The Witch Who Came From the Sea ('76), to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive ('01), to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan ('10). Just like those pictures, we're saddled with a female guide, whose isolation quickly transforms into an unnerving unreality, as Automatic At Sea explores notions of privilege and how our own ingrained belief structures can shape the way we perceive our ever-shifting environments. 

Lessner allows us to take up residence in the mind of Eve (Hiselius), Automatic's unreliable narrator, as her monologues regarding their daily proceedings reveal a woman constantly questioning her surroundings, not to mention her new host. His eagerness to please annoys her, as she senses an air of phoniness in every move and gesture he makes. She sneaks off and breaks into a nearby beach house, trying on clothes and escaping into a fantasy that she would rather indulge all by herself, even as visions of Grace (Breeda Wool) begin to creep into her periphery. Who is this girl lounging on the counter, and why was she just running through the beach's adjacent woods (in mesmerizing slow motion), tumbling down a hill of rocks as if trying to escape from an unseen pursuer? 

When Grace materializes out of thin air, she acts as this fractured consciousness, who interacts with both Eve and Peter (Gerson) in different ways, though is almost always cautious around their male host. She warns Eve that he's dangerous, and requests she monitor his increasingly erratic behavior (such as conversing with stone statues before masturbating into the fireplace). With Peter, Grace indulges his complaints about the abundance of freedom that comes with being rich and alone on your own island, unchecked by any sort of societal oversight. In a sense, she's the sexiest Jiminy Cricket - whispering into each's ear while winking to the woman, jokingly suggesting poisoning this man's drink. All the while, days run into each other, as suns rise and set, casting a warm, sometimes purplish glow over numerous scenic vistas. It's as if we're all waiting for a hurricane to roll in and decimate these three; a discordant discontent permeating the serene surface. 

With the aid of cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik, Lessner often lets scenes establish and play out in long, patient zooms, which then hold for whatever surrealist dread is about to unfold. Each moment is perfectly framed; sometimes resembling centerfolds, where the beautiful models come alive in this salt-licked paradise. Juxtaposed against these rather gorgeous images is a dissonant electro score, which rumbles on low-end frequencies before overtaking scenes with shrill synth stabs and arpeggios. While the visuals are lulling us into a trance, allowing us to ponder Eve's musings about self as she watches a demonic apparition of Peter mow the lawn, the sonics are not so subtly clueing us into the fact that none of this is going to end well. For all we know, Eve may discover the true nature of happiness inside this increasingly prison-like isle of woe, as Peter continues to make excuses for another couple's delayed arrival to this party. 

If anything in the film feels familiar, it's the final twenty minutes, which become downright Lynchian in their introduction of another possible reality, and the repetitive revisiting of previous scenes, sometimes played in reverse. It's here that we realize nothing we've just seen may be anything more than a conjuring, a stand-in for the truth of Eve and Peter's existence, manufactured by either one or both (or neither). But that's possibly Automatic At Sea's finest quality: a delightful ambiguity toward not only its subjects, but the very thesis of the film, as well. In an age where we construct our own microcosms based on politics, economy and entertainment (just to name a few influences), Lessner's channeled that self-focus into a piece of cerebral, invasive art, never really interested in doling out answers, because we may make those up as we trudge along in our own bubbles, too. 

Automatic At Sea is now available to stream on iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo on Demand and Google Play in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.