Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2013

Black Rock

The hunted

'Black Rock' wastes potential of its survival horror conceit with incompetent filmmaking

Black Rock
LD Entertainment
Director: Katie Aselton
Screenplay: Mark Duplass
Starring: Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell, Katie Aselton, Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson and Will Bouvier
Rated R / 1 hour, 23 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

At about the one-hour mark of Black Rock, mere banality gives way to pure ineptitude. It happens in a climactic moment when the film shifts from suspense to action, as director Katie Aselton proves completely incapable of handling the transition. There's an extended fight scene between multiple characters, shot handheld, and I promise, teenage you and your friends, borrowing your dad's old Super 8 camera, could have shot the same scene with an equal amount of competence.

Aselton has no idea where to point the camera, no idea where to move it (or when), displays no sense of geographic space, and cobbles it all together out of barely-composed, half-completed shots. Footage just flat-out seems to be missing from the scene - which probably either means there simply wasn't enough to work with and the filmmakers had to edit around it (to no avail), or the cut footage was even worse than what we get in the final product. (The low budget, by the way, is no excuse. Grading on a curve doesn't do anyone any favors.)

It's not that Aselton's work behind the camera had been all bad until that point. But she proves much more comfortable using an intimate setting to slowly build tension than she does once that tension finally erupts into violence. The moments that really start to work cinematically only come in fits and starts - but hey, that's a start, at least. (Or a fit. I can never tell.)

There are some interesting undercurrents running through the film, which is what makes its shoddy execution so much of a letdown. It presents us with a female-centric survival scenario (centered around three women on a camping trip on a remote island) and directly juxtaposes that against a particularly distorted form of brotherhood. There's potential for real power in that narrative (described by some as a female version of Deliverance), but we get only glimpses.

The three women are old friends - Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell) and Abby (Aselton) - taking a weekend trip to an island where they have fond memories from their younger days. They stumble upon a group of hunters - Henry (Will Bouvier), Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anslem Richardson) - and invite them to join them for the evening.

The three guys have just returned from duty in Iraq. In fact, as it turns out, they've been dishonorably discharged. Something about their higher-ups not agreeing with their "methods," for which the three appear unapologetic. That's as much information as we get about their military actions, which is one of the smartest things Mark Duplass' script does. It explains just enough to unsettle us, and no more.

The casual way Derek drops these little morsels of information creates a feeling of unease - but that feeling hardly gets a chance to get under the girls' skin, what with their friend Abby so blatantly (and drunkenly) flirting with Henry. Abby's flirtatious behavior around the campfire creates an entirely different form of tension, as we see everyone else in various stages of discomfort. Aselton does a nice job here, just with the way she navigates the characters' various reactions and body language.

But within moments, everything has changed. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that Abby, Sarah and Lou suddenly have every reason to fear these men. These highly loyal, highly trained killers.

It's the hunters' desperately emotional sense of loyalty toward one another that provides the most interesting angle in Black Rock, but it's one that also could have been explored in a lot more depth - and without sacrificing the impressive lack of exposition about the guys and their military exploits.

Unfortunately, Aselton and Duplass don't show the same restraint with the depiction of the three leads. When the trip begins, there's deep and longstanding tension between Lou and Abby, to the extent that neither one wants to be in the other's company. But when the reasons for their animosity finally come out - someone cheated with someone's boyfriend back in college - it reduces them to catty stereotypes better suited to a high-school movie than one built around strong, independent women.

The lack of character depth hamstrings the film to a great degree, but there are still strong sequences here and there. Until, that is, the last 25 minutes. The climactic scene and another key sequence preceding it moments earlier are absolutely catastrophic, both in the logic of the way they're staged and the utterly confounding way they're shot. When we should be building toward and finally getting our emotional catharsis and dramatic resolution, instead we're wondering who in the hell is holding the camera like that, and why won't they stop.

There's enough fertile material at the root of Black Rock that I wouldn't mind seeing essentially this exact same premise done over again. Preferably next time with filmmakers who know what they're doing.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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