It must be hard to make a good survival movie. Quality survival movies (The Grey, for example) are a progressively rare breed, while mediocre-to-shitty survival movies are legion. In my opinion, it all comes down to plotting. Even if your movie is shot in a killer location with a world-renowned cinematographer and a stellar cast, if your characters make stupid decisions, the audience will check out of the narrative. It’s a problem that’s plagued many a survival movie over the years, from The Canyon to Wrecked, and Black Rock is no exception. Despite an intriguing set-up, a veteran cast, and an arrestingly beautiful setting, it’s a film that’s repeatedly hindered by dumb-as-hell character decisions.
In an attempt to restore their fractured relationship, Kate Bosworth invites friends Lake Bell and Kate Aselton (who co-wrote and directed) on a camping trip to a secluded island they visited as childhood friends. The script was co-written by mumblecore visionary Mark Duplass, and his fingerprints are all over Black Rock––there’s heavy improvisation, while the character interactions remain relaxed and natural. Bosworth, Bell, and Aselton are real and relatable. Duplass introduced the world to mumblecore horror with the excellent Baghead, and a similar sense of pervading dread runs through Black Rock. The basic set-up provides unlimited possibilities.
After boating to the island and setting up camp, the women are approached by a trio of friendly hunters. A drunk and horny Aselton, fresh out of a relationship, invites the men to join them for a few drinks around the campfire. Things are friendly and open at first, but when the men confess they’ve been dishonorably discharged from military service in the middle east, a heavy sense of disquiet settles over the group. In what I felt was an interesting comment about our returning troops, the women are instantly wary.
Aselton sneaks into the woods with one of the soldier boys for a quick hook-up, and when her attempted rape results in his accidental death, his two Army buddies lock and load, deciding that killing the women is the only alternative. Unarmed and ill-prepared, the trio of women flee into the heart of the forested island to hide, talk, plan, cry, hug, and talk some more. The grrrl power agenda works for the most part, but sometimes it feels like a survival movie that‘s been diluted with an eyedropper full of Lifetime movie juice.
There’s plenty of nail-biting tension in Black Rock, but that tension fades with every stupid decision the characters make, and audience frustration eventually builds to the bursting point. It‘s one of those movies that makes you want to yell at the screen. If Kate Bosworth was sitting next to you on your sofa, you‘d grab her by the lapels and scream: “If you’re going to sneak somewhere, you need to shut the fuck up!” And although Black Rock definitely has its share of intense moments, the lack of character logic threatens to derail the film entirely. As the women sit hunched and naked, carving spears with a hot pink pocket knife, you have to ask yourself, “Why not just go for the guns?”