Robert is a man who stays in his house all day. His routine is static and isolated, and his only real activity is watching TV, particularly a channel tuned to one thing: clips of sunsets on beaches.
But then Robert sees something disturbing on the television, and believes he may be the only witness to this event. He tries to report it to the authorities, which finally pulls him into the outside world… and propels him into a strange netherworld that unlocks the reason for his stasis in the first place.
Writer-director Matthew Kinahan, along with co-writer Ben O’Neil, has crafted a disquieting, oddly hypnotic sci-fi short that uses its uncanny sense of mystery and a sneaky sense of momentum to create both an alternate reality and a haunting meditation on alienation, depression and grief.
The film begins by sculpting Robert’s isolated world, using spooky lighting and offbeat compositions to create a subtle yet effective sense of being off-balance. These evocative visuals work in tandem with stunning sound design, which adds to the uneasiness of the film’s world. Often certain elements of the ambient sound — like a clicking of a clock or the static of a TV — are mixed at disproportionate levels, keeping viewers off-balance in an almost subconscious way. There’s an effective, often ironic score weaving throughout as well, punctuating certain key moments of the story.
The storytelling itself takes its time to unravel itself, but once Robert makes the decision to leave his house and pursue his own investigation, the film opens up as well, picking up pace and tension and using its momentum to veer off into unexpected yet satisfyingly odd directions. By the time Robert encounters the film’s endgame, the story reveals a richly imagined world lurking underneath its placid, almost soporific surfaces — one that spins Robert into an entirely unexpected direction, and a collision with his innermost emotions.
Like films from David Lynch and David Cronenberg, “The Sunset Channel” takes the strategy of exploring a seemingly peaceable yet static surface and digging underneath it to reveal a darker, sinister underbelly. But rather than take things into a surreal direction, the story goes deeper into Robert’s psyche, revealing the persistent undertow of grief and its resulting depression and lingering sorrow.
While perhaps the story lets go of the strange tangle of conspiracy too soon — it’s hard not to want more as viewers — the final sounds and images of “The Sunset Channel” are fittingly melancholy and elegiac. The central “mystery” of the film’s plot is solved, albeit very subtly, but the strangely heartbreaking ending shows that no reason or explanation can be imposed on a deep, abiding grief. Instead, it is much like a tide: it moves in a slow, powerful and inexorable rhythm of its own, and while it may recede, it never entirely disappears.