Black Rock (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Black Rock (2013)

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A long nightAndrew LIKE BannerThere are two conflicts central to Black Rock.  One gets developed incredibly well, resulting in one of the most powerful female images I have seen in film since Ridley burst out to fight the Alien Queen.  The other is troublesome, using a fear of soldiers that is too simplistic in both concept and execution, wavering between turning the film into an unknowable nightmare and more human threat that can be dealt with.  Both sides of the film, despite how I feel about the two, are worthy of discussion.

Some films come out that are more fun to talk about or analyze than they are to watch.  For example, Sucker Punch, a film so misunderstood that the people miss the purpose explicitly stated in the title, is a decent watch but something I love to talk to other viewers about.  Black Rock fits snugly into this category.  I don't imagine that I'll ever watch it again, but the characters are very well realized, the scenery at times used to great effect, and I will remember it for conversation in years to come.

The film opens with Lou (Lake Bell) and Sarah (Kate Bosworth) traveling to the island that they used to spend time at when they were little.  At their departure point they meet up with Abby (Katie Aselton), who has some unresolved issues with Lou, and after both Abby and Lou are about to leave Sarah reveals that she has cancer to get them both to stay.  She doesn't, and while this scene initially left a bad taste in my mouth, it showed a willingness on screenwriter Mark Duplass' part to give a "go for broke" mentality to female characters that is usually missing.

Another idea presented but not developed is the way the women's childhood haunt is tainted with adult concerns.

Another idea presented but not developed too much is the way the women's childhood haunt is tainted with adult concerns.

The lows, and extreme highs, begin when the three encounter another trio of hunters on the island.  Abby flirts with one of them most of the night and when they are alone tries to make a move, thinks better of it, but he tries to rape her and after defending herself with a rock ends up dead.  While this is going on Lou and Sarah are talking with the other two hunters who reveal that they were recently discharged from Iraq as soldiers who fight with techniques their superiors did not agree with.  They snap after their friend dies, take the girls hostage, and after some crafty thinking the girls get away and begin a game of cat and mouse with the remaining soldiers.

The biggest problem in the film regards those soldiers.  They are not handled with any kind of consistency to their skill and I have some issues with their psychosis in relation to their military careers as they are handled with a philosophy of "soliders = crazy rapists".  I did not like that the fact they fought in Iraq turned them into murdering boogeymen with military skill that changes depending on the whim of the scene.  At times the remaining soldiers seem to materialize out of thin air and make precision shots in the dead of night, then the next scene bumbling loudly through the woods and getting themselves hurt in a Three Stooges sketch gone wrong.

But where the soldiers are developed questioningly, the women are engaging, smart, and surprising.  I love films that put genuine personal stakes with the chaos and the problems between Lou and Abby highlight just enough to give their later test of survival an added edge.  The tension from their personal struggle earlier comes to a head in a scene that I genuinely had no idea how it was going to play out when Abby begins to slap Lou around to keep her from breaking out into a psychotic episode.

I always question the inclusion of rape scenes in any film but (director) handles the assault with caution and steady horror.

I always question the inclusion of rape scenes in any film but Aselton handles the assault with caution and steady horror.

All of this culminates with some visuals that hold incredible power.  We have become so accustomed to men as the brutal defenders of civilization that when the women begin to fight back I unconsciously clutched myself in defense.  One image, with the women naked, shivering, with bruises and cuts that look like war paint and carving weapons out of their surroundings, will stay with me forever.  Rare is the image of sisterhood and survival so brutally and beautifully laid out, and had the film been able to better develop their aggressors this would be one of the year's best.

As it stands, it is still a very good film.  The tension built from conflicts interpersonal to visceral in such a steady progression that by the time the climactic fight starts I was greatly invested in outcome.  The needlessly sensational elements about the soldiers don't sink the film, but still beg questions about how we deal with the military in fiction today.  The strength of the film is in quietly questioning the images and roles of men and women in violent struggle, making the extra sociopolitical baggage unneeded.

They're conversations worth having packaged in a film made with great skill and bravery.  Some thrillers are content to wow with images, this one has the guts to think as well.

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Black Rock - TailBlack Rock (2013)

Directed by Katie Aselton.
Screenplay written by Mark Duplass.
Starring Aselton, Lake Bell, and Kate Bosworth.

Posted by Andrew

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