There may be a clue in the film's tagline: Immigration is hell. What do you call a coyote when he works across open water instead of desert borders? That's the American skipper of the Carrie Lynn (Antoni Corone), accepting a fat envelope of bills to run a Cuban father and daughter (Mario Ernesto Sánchez and Taylor Rouviere) overnight into Miami as if they were the crew of his shrimp trawler, rigging the nets and picking through dumped weed and bycatch of crabs to the clang and clatter of the winch and the engine, the low hum of sodium light, and the reggae lilt of Sister Nancy's "Bam Bam." And then the apophenia kicks in. He's much too corporeal for a ghost, this beautiful young man scraped off the seabed with barnacles crusting his brown skin like cowries and a wet fringe of weed and tangled shells trailing from the stumps of both knees and one wrist (he is played by real-life triple amputee Moise Brutus), but what in the shape of this story is he? Put me back, he repeats ever more urgently in a language no one else on the boat understands, heaving for breath like a landed fish; his skin glistens stickily. We are all dead. Does he mean the people on the boat with him, the people under the water where he came from? His face swirled with barnacles like tribal scars, his shoulders patched with sea-growth recall the coral-colonized sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor, whose Vicissitudes (2007) was not after all a tribute to the dead of the Middle Passage; where did he come from? What to do now he's here? "We got to help him," the father says to the skipper. "Why don't you go help him?" the skipper says back. Neither of them move. The girl at the tiller sings aimlessly in the windy night. The skipper stares at the palm of the hand that touched the sea-stranger, grabs the shotgun with it. Propped against the railing, his skin drying, the stranger gasps, She's coming for me—
It feels important to me that we never see clearly or even properly understand her, even in the film's final moments of voices rising like a storm-babble out of the overcast, empty, translucently green sea, but that sense of fractured pattern means I can't tell if any of the associations the last shot evokes for me were the filmmakers' intentions. I wondered about anglerfish. I thought of Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse—it smells of cold sea-graves in here, of sea-wrecks, of sea-death. The sea shall give up her dead. This film is based on true events, the opening titles informed us, but which ones? The trawler found drifting in Biscayne Bay? The exploitation of immigrants? Refugees lost at sea, enslaved captives thrown overboard? Who's the title, even? American hauntings, American drownings; it makes more of a prose poem than a narrative, but I'm still thinking about it. One of the features I'm enjoying about the Criterion Channel lately is its wealth of short films I might not otherwise run into, but fortunately for recommendation purposes this one is also freely streaming. I wouldn't mind seeing it at a festival someday, both for the practical effects of the stranger and the close-quarters sea-sway of the cinematography by Noah Chamis. The small, isolated fragility of the trawler is a constant, the vast abyss of the sea that upholds it, and yet one shot of the Carrie Lynn seen from underneath, silhouetted by her own smoky, rippling, amniotic light, is as powerful for beauty and menace as anything in a deep-sea documentary. This catch brought to you by my enigmatic backers at Patreon.