Reviewed by Patrick Cooper
When I saw Mark Duplass credited as an executive producer and writer on what is marketed as the “female Deliverance,” it made me a bit apprehensive, it also undeniably sparked my interest. Mark and his brother/filmmaking partner Jay, have created their own niche of indie-film, “mumblecore.” This style typically incorporates awkward man-boys and soporific conversation-style – two things your average joe doesn’t associate with thrillers.
That’s why Black Rock might surprise you. Mark co-wrote it with his wife Kate Aselton, who also directed and stars in the film. Besides some “natural” sounding dialogue that burrows into tedious territory at times, Black Rock is refreshingly stripped of all Duplass-isms. It’s a lean, primal survival tale inhabited by well-developed characters you actually feel comfortable rooting for. The strong female leads even manage to maintain the film’s visceral suspense despite one actor whose mauled acting threatens to shatter the whole damn thing.
Childhood friends Sarah, Abby, and Lou are having a bad day at Black Rock (get it?). Sarah (Kate Bosworth) brought them all to the secluded island to rekindle their friendship and bury the long-standing hatchet between Lou (Lake Bell) and Abby (Aselton). Years before, Lou slept with Abby’s then-boyfriend, who she was prepared to marry. Abby’s since gotten married to another guy, but she drops some hints that her matrimony has gone to shit.
Their first night on Black Rock, the girls encounter three hunters, including one that the girls vaguely remember from high school. The hunters join the girls for a campfire and rivers of liquor, during which they reveal they’re fresh outta the military, where they were dishonorably discharged. When one ex-soldier gets a little rough with flirtatious Abby, shit hits the fan very fast and the girls find themselves the targets of some trigger-happy Iraq vets.
Up until the “hunt,” the film moves along nicely, building up an incredible amount of tension during the campfire scene. Without drab periods of lengthy exposition, writers Duplass and Aselton sculpt their characters, cleverly filling in the blanks from their childhood to now. Once the hunt begins, however, the film does become painfully formulaic. So on one hand Black Rock feels innovative, on the other hand terribly routine. It’s never boring though – even when it’s beat-for-beat predictable the characters and atmosphere continue to grip.
The female cast is great. Bosworth is her usual charismatic self and Lake Bell is a boyishly charming actress. Director Aselton, as Abby, goes through the most interesting transformation in the film: whiny, grudge-bearing bitch to primordial warrior woman. One particular scene has been taking a lot of heat in reviews, in which Abby and Lou strip out of their wet, freezing clothes to avoid hypothermia. There are a good seven minutes where the two are completely naked, whittling primitive spears. While many critics have called it exploitative, I read it deeper than that. It’s a bit hamstrung, but can blatantly be interpreted as the two girls stripping away the remnants of modern society and reverting back into savages. C’mon, this is Film 101. Or maybe they just figured guys would want to see some naked chicks, I dunno.
The actor I referred to earlier who nearly ruins the entire second half of the film is Jay Paulson, who plays the highly-strung homicidal ex-soldier Derek. He plays it way too over the top for the film’s dreary, realistic atmosphere. His performance takes away from some of the final act’s creepiness – shattering the believability of some moments – but thankfully Lou and Abby pick up the slack.
Black Rock isn’t very ambitious, but it is impressively solid and very well acted (minus Paulson). It makes me hope Aselton and the brothers Duplass have some more thrillers up their sleeves.
Black Rock is presented by Lionsgate in 1080p HD with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The video has very strong contrast in the dark woods of the island and the beach scenes look particularly good. The audio track is fine, nothing spectacular. There is some great ambiance in the woods.
Audio Commentary with Actor Lake Bell and Actor/Director Kate Aselton: the two women provide a lively track that only provides surface insight. It’s obvious the two are good friends in real life (they admit it in the commentary) and that connection permeated throughout the entire cast and crew. Overall it’s pretty entertaining and worth a listen.
Behind the Scenes: this brief look behind the scenes contains interviews with several cast members, as well as Mark Duplass. They discuss what it was like shooting on location in the woods of Maine, how they all shared a house during filming, and other various aspects. There’s nothing too juicy here.
The Music of Black Rock: an interview with the score’s composer, along with the talented cello player who performed his composition. They talk about how the cello can mimic a human more than any other instrument, which is pretty cool.