Mark Reviews Movies

Black Rock


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Katie Aselton

Cast: Katie Aselton, Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth, Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, Anselm Richardson

MPAA Rating: R (for some strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and brief graphic nudity)

Running Time: 1:23

Release Date: 5/17/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 17, 2013

There's a tight internal logic to Black Rock that guarantees we aren't questioning the motives and decisions of the film's three heroines as they run, hide, and fight for survival. The key to the film's success in that regard is its simplicity.

The characters as established in the film's first act are basic, and the relationships are only slightly more complex, with two of the female protagonists having been in a fight for years. These seeming shortcomings don't detract from the film (although that first act does spend a lot of time establishing and then re-establishing the same points). It's not who these women are that matters but who they become over the course of a harrowing game of cat and mouse with men who are set on killing them.

That's the setup of Mark Duplass' screenplay—nothing more and nothing less. Director Katie Aselton takes it for what it is—a visceral little minimalist thriller with underpinnings of feminism. It's a very short experience but one that hits its beats with a sense of urgency and a feeling of helplessness.

The three women are Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell), and Abby (Aselton). They were once the closest of friends, but Lou slept with one of Abby's boyfriends years ago. Abby has never been able to forgive Lou, no matter how many times she's apologized. Sarah has tricked them both into believing that's she's taking each of them to a remote island where they spent part of their childhood. Neither Lou nor Abby is happy with deception, so Sarah lies that she has cancer to put the fight into perspective. It's the only really questionable decision on the part of the screenplay, but at least the ruse is over with quickly before it turns into a long, drawn-out thing.

Soon enough, the three are in a small motorboat and landing on the distant island. Sarah has decided to use the weekend trip to bring them all together again and has drawn a map—from her shaky memory—that, in theory, will lead them to a clubhouse deep in the forest where they used to play in more innocent times. Yes, it's a metaphor, too.

The women fail in the search. Abby is back to her antagonistic ways with Lou, who is frustrated with the emotional brick wall that used to be her friend. The best solution they can devise is to get drunk. That's when the three men come out of nowhere.

They're hunters having bad luck. Surely they'd like to have a drink, Abby offers. She's feeling depressed and seems quite happy to flirt with the younger Henry (Will Bouvier), the leader of the trio of guys. The other two are Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anselm Richardson). They are veterans of the recent conflicts in the Middle East, dishonorably discharged after a violent encounter. Derek and Alex say that Henry saved their lives.

Abby lures Henry into the woods for a more private encounter. She tells him to stop after coming to her senses. He doesn't. He gets rough. She incapacitates him in self-defense. His friends don't see it that way, and they take the women captive.

From the moment that seemingly playful encounter turns sinister, the film seldom relents in building tension and maintaining suspense, and it does so with a series of scenarios that never seem outlandish and are always guided by the warring parties' respective motives and responses. Abby, for example, becomes the de facto leader of her group, partly because she feels responsible for the situation they themselves in but also because she's the only one who can think rationally when the pressure mounts.

Take the first hurdle for the women, who awaken in the morning bound and seeing the men arguing about what to do with them. As the debate starts to side on triple murder, Abby makes a split-second decision to insult their pride. The gamble works, and soon enough, they careening through the woods (a simple locale but one filled with the dread of the unknown), separating because it only makes sense, and trying to stay as silent as possible in their hiding spots as the sounds of the men's approaching footsteps get louder. The way Aselton uses sound and its absence here is key. The slightest noise in the trees could be a signal of their discovery; too much noise coming from them could guarantee it (Abby instinctively whispers in low tones, which would carry less).

If the scenario sounds like it would become repetitive, the screenplay keeps devising ways to bring the protagonists into peril without sacrificing the only logic available to the characters. They have advantage in numbers but are outgunned. The men show no signs of stopping their hunt, and the women can only hide for so long before they're found. Escape is the only rational decision, and with that set, there are only two options: their boat or the men's.

The film's turning point is a scene of transformation. Naked as the day they were born after a failed attempt to retrieve their boat, which the men set out into the water, threatens them with hypothermia, the women huddle together and, out of unbridled and righteous scorn, are reborn (It's also an act of reclaiming their bodies after the unrelenting attack began with an attempted violation). No longer willing to simply survive as victims of circumstance, they decide to fight back. At this point, Black Rock is essentially on autopilot, but by this point, the film has tapped something primal that carries it through to the end.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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