Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton surprised me with “Black Rock,” a lean, formidable thriller about survival and friendship. A husband and wife team, Mr. Duplass wrote the screenplay and Ms. Asleton directed.
Mark Duplass is known as the star of goofy but earnest films such as “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Humpday.” He also shared writing, directing and producing credits with his brother, Jay Duplass, for the off-kilter comedies “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” Followers of Duplass will recognize and appreciate the relaxed and improvisational banter between “Black Rock’s” three main characters: Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell) and Gabby (Ms. Aselton). The women are childhood friends who have reunited for what Sarah hopes will be a bonding experience (especially for Lou and Gabby, who are in the midst of a falling out).
The spiky rapport between the women is intimate and spry, with a streak of black humor (says Sarah: “we are all dying, we can be hit by a bus tomorrow, and I’ll tell you one thing for certain, there are no buses on that island, so we can go out there and be safe from buses.”). This kind of dialogue is silly and unfussy, but holds enough clarity to bring the characters info focus. Like her husband, Ms. Aselton is known for her comedic traits on the improv comedy show “The League” and roles on “The Office.” As a director, Ms. Aselton is adept at building tension – both in atmosphere and between the three women.
In many ways, “Black Rock” is a formulaic thriller about three women who, after a chilling turn of events, fall predator to hostile men while on a secluded, wooded island. But “Black Rock” distinguishes itself from the trappings of the genre. For one, the women fight back.
At one point in the film, Gabby tells Lou that they are the only two women left on earth. This statement is not uttered out of hopelessness, but to instill hope – and fury – into her panicky friend. After Sarah is shot and killed, Gabby and Lou are indeed the only two women left on the island, and they continually prove that this is in no way worse case scenario.Throughout the course of the film, the women display heroic (if at times unbelievable) feats of physical perseverance.
After a harrowing escape attempt gone horribly wrong, Lou and Gabby attempt to swim to their boat in below-freezing waters. The boat is too far from shore, and the two women return to the island and remove their clothing to avoid hypothermia. The most empowering scene in the film is when Lou and Gabby huddle together for warmth, alone and naked in the woods. Instead of reducing the scene to a tawdry moment of sexualized female objectification, Aselton conveys their nakedness as a conduit of primal strength. Gabby and Lou are two unadorned Eves who have found themselves not in a prelapsarian garden, but in a terrifying and corrupted wood. And what do they do in the woods? They make spears and fight back.
The image of two naked women carving rudimentary spears in a dark wood was both absurd and alarming. So was a display of what can only be described as pure, unabashed female machisma between Gabby and Lou right before they siege their attackers’ campsite. The scene was complete with head-slapping, steely gazes, f-bombs and a brief but chilling tutorial of how to efficiently slit someone’s throat.
“Black Rock” is not bogged down by convoluted plot-twists or over-wrought explorations of the characters’ psyches. Yet, the latter could be considered the film’s weakest element, especially concerning the male villains. The men are former soldiers who, for reasons not fully explained, were dishonorably discharged from service. The heinous actions of these men could be seen as a defamatory depiction of soldiers who deserve nothing short of our thanks and support.
However, these characters represent a generation of young veterans who are plagued by PTSD. I am in no way suggesting that soldiers who suffer from PTSD (male and female) are prone to the inexplicable violence committed by these fictional characters. Yet, recent events (the murder of Chris Kyle by Eddie Ray Routh, the trial of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales) make this scenario in the woods disturbingly – and tragically – plausible.
“Black Rock” | Directed by Katie Aselton | Screenplay by Mark Duplass | with Katie Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth | 1 hr, 23 minutes | rated R
Vanessa Graniello is the Press Manager & Dramaturg for The Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center in Patchogue, NY. Her film articles and reviews have appeared in The Moving Arts Film Journal, The Alternative Film Guide, and the newsletter for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. You can find this review and many others on her blog, stickyourthumbselsewhere.com