Tuesday, June 11, 2013

'Black Rock' (2012) directed by Kate Aselton

Black Rock is a cinematic Frankenstein's monster: a movie stitched together from elements of indie mumblecore relationship drama and exploitation survival horror, two genres that mix about as well as oil and water.  If you've ever watched a film where two girls in turtlenecks listen to Belle and Sebastian while working out their relationship issues and you thought "dammit, I wish one of these girls would just jam a knife through someone's throat" this might be the movie for you. 

The rather sparse plot concerns three 30ish women, Lou (Lake Bell), Sarah (Kate Bosworth) and Abby (writer/director Kate Aselton) meeting up and taking a camping holiday out to a relatively remote island they used to play on as children.  Lou and Abby have a burning resentment between them as Lou drunkenly slept with Abby's boyfriend when they were teenagers.  So Sarah figures that the best way to get them to make up for good is to take a holiday together away from distractions.  Here the three can talk things out, and learn that maybe, just maybe, the friendships they've taken for granted might be the most precious possessions they actually own.

Lou (Lake Bell)
But a wrench is thrown into this complicated emotional tangle.  A wrench in the shape of a trio of disgraced, armed, apparently psychopathic ex-soldiers.  Things go south fast, and soon the three women are being hunted for sport by the deranged men.  Can they possibly survive against men who are trained to kill?  Can they become "the most dangerous game"?  Will Abby ever forgive Lou for sleeping with her ex?  

These disparate elements don't quite meld together perfectly, although the film makes a noble effort in trying.   Black Rock doesn't seem to know quite what it wants to do, spending more than a third of its running time devoted to the interpersonal dynamics of the three women before even one skull is smashed in with a rock.  Fortunately our three leads are played by three competent actors, particularly Lake Bell, whose wide, staring eyes make her look increasingly unhinged.  The dialogue, which sounds semi-improvised, is realistic enough and quickly we become not exactly involved, but mildly interested and able to recognise each of their personalities and care about them.

Sarah (Kate Bosworth)
This slow introduction wouldn't be such a bad thing, but throughout these sequences there is no build-up of tension and no feeling of impending doom.  One hand it means that when everything kicks off it's jarring how quickly the film switches gears.  On the other it means that the first 35 minutes or so feels faintly redundant. As the film is only 80 minutes long, this is a not inconsiderable problem. This short running time drains a lot of tension from the film.  Once the girls are on the run they only have one or two run-ins with the men pursuing them, and though we're rooting for them to transform from helpless, teary-eyed victims into badass, mud-coated survivalists the change never quite gels convincingly.  

These glaring flaws are a bit of a pity, because when Black Rock actually gets into gear it's pretty good.  The main villain, Derek (Jake Paulson) is enjoyably bonkers, and the sequences of the terrified girls hiding in the woods as the men comb the woodland are effectively  suspenseful.  Aselton's direction hems in the characters on all sides with greenery, which induces a paranoid claustrophobia.  We never know quite when and where the soldiers are going to pop up, or whether a bullet will whistle randomly through the air. 

There's at least one stand-out, bravura sequence too.  Having gotten soaking wet, the girls are freezing and shivering, so they take off all their clothes and stalk around in the moonlight completely naked.  The combination of nudity, mud, blood and their long tangled hair allow us to witness them changing from prey to predator.  As they crouch in the moonlight sharpening wooden spears there's a sense that this is a throwback to a wilder prehistoric mindset, they're becoming vengeful personifications of furious womanhood.  It's a complex mix of masculine and feminine imagery, they're bathed in moonlight (the moon being an inescapably feminine symbol) and constructing their own ersatz wooden penises to brutally penetrate the soldiers.  The nudity here is refreshingly non-sexual, managing to emphasise both their vulnerability and their increasing power in the narrative.

But, frustratingly in the next sequence they've got their clothes on again.  Boo! In a film that is largely about these women getting in touch with their feral, animalistic instincts, them getting dressed is a thematic step in the wrong direction.  It's a shame, the image of the testosterone fuelled, jarhead soldier clutching an expensive rifle being defeated by angry naked women daubed in mud and blood, white teeth shining out against their bramble bush hair, crude yet deadly spears clutched in their hands - it's powerful stuff.

In happier, less blood-soaked times.
The conflict between masculinity and femininity is at the heart of the film, but writer Mark Duplass and director Kate Aselton never quite have as strong a grip on it as they'd like.  Though the film attempts to achieve a moral ambiguity, actual complexity is tantalisingly out of reach.  There is a ton of violence against women in this film and though it never quite feels gratuitous, it never entirely feels earned either.  This failure is again, a victim of the short running time. There's just not enough room in 80 minutes for these themes to organically develop AND to create tension AND develop the villains, who, compared to the three women, are cardboard cut-outs.  This makes the final scenes, which to my eye appear to be trying to earnestly say something about how we react to violence inflicted upon women, fall quite flat.

So Black Rock isn't a great film but it is an ambitious one, and at least it has its heart in the right place even though it doesn't achieve it's thematic aims.  It's clearly a low-budget affair but it makes intelligent use of what resources it has.  It's definitely worth a watch, though perhaps not worth the price of a cinema ticket.

'Black Rock' is on limited release from June 21st.

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