“BLACK ROCK” (Movie Review)
BLACK ROCK is not the first film to focus on a woman or women who strike back against male violation, but it’s one of the few that neither exploit their female characters nor wear their feminist leanings on their sleeve. It’s a taut, lean and mean little survival thriller that nonetheless leaves time to get to know the heroines at the center of the mayhem.
Opening today in limited theatrical release and on VOD, BLACK ROCK begins with childhood friends Sarah (Kate Bosworth) and Lou (Lake Bell) on a road trip ostensibly inspired by Sarah’s discovery that she’s incurably sick. Once they meet up with another former pal, Abby (played by director Katie Aselton), the truth comes out: Sarah is perfectly healthy but the relationship between Lou and Abby has been ailing for years, and Sarah wants to heal their bond via a girls’ weekend away on an island off the coast of Maine where they once hung out as kids. The reunion-in-a-remote-location setup is a time-honored one in horror and thriller films, and here validated by the palpable bond between the trio, tempered with the equally believable resentments simmering between Lou and Abby that inspire Sarah to want them to get away from it all.
Working from a script by her husband Mark Duplass, a veteran of the “mumblecore” movement (including the mumblehorror hybrid BAGHEAD), Aselton and her co-stars establish a loose, semi-improvised-feeling rapport that has them behaving much like movie guys on a getaway—they’ve brought plenty of liquor on their trip, and swear like sailors. Yet the film’s tensions are specifically defined by gender warfare (even from the start; Lou and Abby’s animosity inevitably has to do with a man), and arise when the three women discover they’re not alone on Black Rock. Henry (Will Bouvier), an old acquaintance of theirs, is on the island with Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anselm Richardson) on a hunting trip—and if that’s not masculine enough, it soon comes out that they’re soldiers as well. Or were, as they reveal that they have just been dishonorably discharged—the first suggestion of the big trouble Sarah, Lou and Abby will find themselves in.
The story of BLACK ROCK develops along lines as familiar as its basic premise, with Aselton and Duplass uninterested in tricking up the movie with the time-fracturing and sometimes dubious narrative contortions familiar from a lot of independent thrillers. They simply aim to tell a tense, direct story of survival under frightening circumstances, and succeed via solid craftsmanship and well-delineated and -acted characters. Aselton, Bell and Bosworth make each of their heroines distinctive and real, their relationships lived-in, their terror palpable as their bonding trip goes seriously south and their transition under pressure into fighters and killers believable. As they become victims and then aggressors, Aselton and her co-stars avoid pandering to those stereotypes, and even in a scene where the women have to strip out of their wet clothes to stay warm, the nudity feels like a necessary byproduct of the situation rather than a cheap way to get some skin into the mix.
Similarly, the guys are driven by identifiable macho impulses rather than being turned into monsters, and the way the violence initially escalates gives both sides reasons to be antagonistic toward the other. As they hunt, pursue and strike at each other over the course of the weekend gone wrong, the island setting develops a physical presence that makes it a sort of character in its own right, thanks to very fine cinematography by Hillary Spera that’s especially impressive during the night scenes. When the blood starts flowing, it’s vivid enough to make its point while stopping short of a gory spectacle that might unbalance the movie’s very human concerns.
Aselton and editor Jacob Vaughan bring the whole thing in at just over 80 minutes, and while some horror/thriller die-hards may grow restless during the first 20 or so waiting for the conflict to rear its ugly head, the time spent getting to know the people first pays off with stronger identification once they turn on each other. The filmmakers haven’t changed the genre here, and nor did they try to; they set out to craft an unpretentious and suspenseful experience, and have accomplished just that. It’s not damning with faint praise to say that BLACK ROCK is commendable in part for succeeding where many bigger and more complicated movies of its ilk have failed.