Black Rock

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If you’ve never seen a movie where attractive women are chased through a forest by an irrational, homicidal madman, then Black Rock is probably the movie for you. Conceived and directed by Katie Aselton from a script by her husband, Mark Duplass, the film makes subtle changes to genre conventions that distinguish it as a marginally more thoughtful take on standard-fare stalking killer material, but horror fans will find its twists and turns too familiar for it to leave a lasting impression once they walk out of the theater.

The film stars Kate Bosworth (Straw Dogs) as Sarah, a young women who enlists her two best friends Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Lake Bell) for a weekend at an uninhabited island where the trio spent much of their childhood. Piloting a small boat out to the pastoral destination, they decide to go searching for a time capsule of keepsakes they buried decades ago, but unresolved conflict between Abby and Lou quickly bubbles to the surface, threatening to ruin their getaway. Before a tenuous peace can be forged, however, they stumble across the path of three hunters, one of whom is the younger brother of an old classmate. 

While Katie drunkenly makes advances at one of the men, Henry (Will Bouvier), Abby and Lou discover that all three were dishonorably discharged from the military for in appropriate behavior; but after Katie accidentally kills Henry while attempting to stop him from raping her, the other two men, led by an unstable ginger named Derek (Jay Paulson), go crazy and threaten to kill all three of them. Soon, they’re running for their lives as these two veteran soldiers become increasingly determined to get revenge for what they see as the murder of their teammate and brother.

Whether or not the film is more “empowering” to women because it was conceived and directed by one is up to viewers, but there are some significant albeit understated differences in this film than the majority of the others that fall into the “slasher” subgenre. First and foremost, all three actresses are grown women, not just comely co-eds, and they amplify a notion in the writing that these are three people with real life experience and real problems, rather than the first-world woes of not being liked by the hottie alpha male or whatever other conflict most thrillers assign their teen protagonists. This not only gives them a more immediate gravitas as characters, but it hints at their maturity and critical thinking, which, some early female bickering aside, lends the film’s cat-and-mouse game some extra sophistication. 

Meanwhile, Aselton and Duplass don’t give these young women unrealistic abilities, such as successfully taking on men twice their size and easily defeating them; their relative incompetence at defending themselves, and especially retaliating against their attackers, offers a refreshingly honest portrait of what might happen in a situation like the one depicted in the film. And further to that end, the filmmakers make a discernible effort to create multidimensional villains whose motivations don’t seem rational, but they’re at least understandable.

Unfortunately, however, in that last regard they don’t succeed; as Derek, the ex-soldier leading the campaign to kill these women, Paulson is a cartoonish psychopath who has no complexity, and is more annoying than intimidating. And in general, nothing really happens in the film that hasn’t already been done in dozens of slasher movies, rendering its suspense nominal at best. And even though Aselton creates an interesting trio of women who, as anyone might realistically do, intriguingly trade among themselves the qualities that are needed in any given moment – meaning one becomes reassuring when the other is scared, etc. – she never quite nails down the sense of reconciliation and cooperation among them that would serve thematically, much less narratively as a counterpoint to the anarchic bloodlust of their male antagonists. (That said, there’s an amusing fealty the film shows to one particular genre hallmark – showcasing the nudity of its female leads – which is smartly conceived even if it’s largely unnecessary.)

While the actresses make a noble effort to hypothesize how they, or we, might realistically react in any of the situations their characters find themselves in, the movie spends too much time on discussion and rationalization – perhaps a reflection of the more contemplative attitudes of women in general – without building that idea into a larger thematic infrastructure. And that’s simply not enough for a filmmaker to do at this point in this genre, much less without the kind of genre proficiency or technical virtuosity to give it, say, visceral immediacy or even stylish gloss, neither of which Aselton possesses yet as a director. Ultimately overlong even at 82 minutes, Black Rock feels like one of the anachronistic knickknacks that the girls buried in their time capsule decades ago, which means that resurrecting it now feels especially pointless, since even then any kind of real creativity with a story like this had already died.

Rating: 4 out of 10