actor-director, Anslem Richardson, battle of the sexes, Black Rock, cinema, disappointing films, Donkey Punch, drama, female friendships, film reviews, films, friends, Iraq War, islands, isolation, Jay Paulson, Kate Bosworth, Katie Aselton, Lake Bell, Mark Duplass, Movies, survival-horror, The Descent, The League, The Puffy Chair, thriller, violence against women, war veterans, Will Bouvier
I really wanted to love Katie Aselton’s Black Rock (2012): oh, boy, did I ever. I went into the film with not only the highest of hopes but also the greatest of expectations, practically willing it to be amazing. How could it lose, after all? The film stars and is directed by Aselton (a complete gold mine in the uproariously funny TV show, The League), is written by her husband, Mark Duplass (also of The League and equally amazing), features Lake Bell (who may just be this generation’s Crispin Glover) and is a female-centric survival-horror film. A pedigree like this seems almost tailor-made for my sensibilities, especially considering how much I’ve always loved The Descent (2005).
Alas, Black Rock ends up being a pretty major disappointment. From a clichéd storyline and heavy-handed musical score to unrealistic, irritating acting and wooden dialogue, the film ended up deflating all of my expectations, one by one. Rather than being a neo-classic, Black Rock ends up being a distinctly lackluster entry into the survival-horror subgenre, more Donkey Punch (2008) than Wilderness (2006). Even worse, the film manages to fail as both a friendship-oriented drama and a horror film, keeping one foot planted in the worst of both worlds.
All that poor Sarah (Kate Bosworth) wants to do is return to the secluded island that she remembered so fondly from her childhood and relive her girlhood memories with her best friends, Abby (Katie Aselton) and Lou (Lake Bell). The only fly in the ointment, of course, being that Abby and Lou can’t stand each others’ guts. Being a real Kissinger, however, Sarah decides to bring everybody together by just, you know, lying about it and invites them each separately. When they all show up at the dock, ready to board the boat, Abby and Lou look about as excited to see each other as a fly and a fly swatter might. Thinking fast, Sarah defuses the situation by pretending to have cancer. That’s right, Sarah the humanitarian bridges the divide by telling her best friends that she has a terminal disease. Let the good times begin!
From here, we get some pretty sub-Blair Witch arguing in the woods stuff, as Abby and Lou proceed to hash out every bit of their contentious relationship. Rather than seeming like a good way to get the gang back together, this begins to seem like a plot on Sarah’s part to have her friends kill each other: could this be some kind of Hitchcockian twist on the part of screenwriter Duplass? Nah…it’s just a lot of pointless bickering to add some “drama” and “character development.” The big problem? All of the “development” stops at the obnoxious phase and never makes it past that.
While tooling through the woods, our trio are surprised by three hunters: Henry (Will Bouvier), Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anslem Richardson). Turns out that the ladies all went to high school with Henry’s older brother, Jimmy. After as much awkward hemming and hawing as a junior high formal, Abby invites the guys to hang out and get shit-faced with them. This, of course, doesn’t make Sarah and Lou particularly happy, since Sarah wanted a girls’ weekend and Lou just wants Abby to spontaneously combust, but Abby gets what she wants because she’s Abby, dammit!
After another exceedingly awkward scene where Abby gets trashed and makes fun of Derek’s lack of facial hair while flagrantly coming on to Henry, she excuses herself to go get some firewood, followed shortly afterwards by Henry, who sees a good opportunity to take this to the next level. This, of course, leaves Sarah and Lou alone with Derek and Alex, which is just enough time to learn that the three guys are recently back from Iraq, where they were dishonorably discharged. “Something” happened over there, something that they don’t want to talk about but, hey: these are still probably nice enough guys, right?
Not quite, as we find out once Henry attempts to rape Abby out in the woods. She puts the kibosh on the attack with a large rock, which ends up putting the kibosh on the rest of Henry’s lifespan. This, in turn, makes Derek and Alex fly into a murderous rage: how dare this crazy bitch kill their wannabe rapist/potentially lunatic war veteran/cuddly best friend?! Since any measure of actual thought, at this point, would derail the rest of the film, the remaining guys make what seems to be a pretty reasonable decision: kill the three women.
Being a survival-horror film, however, this is all just set-up for one long game of cat-and-mouse between the three friends and their (presumably) insane captors. It goes without saying that they’ll break free, escape, suffer injuries, fight back, get in touch with their inner warriors and kick a ton of ass: it goes without saying because these are all of the traditional beats in any survival-horror film and Aselton and Duplass are absolutely not interested in doing anything outside of this particular box. Period. This, of course, all leads to an ending that could probably be seen coming from at least the end of the first act, if not the opening credits and the sudden realization that tremendous success in television comedy doesn’t necessarily translate to incredible success in a thriller/horror film.
Not to flog this horse too much but Black Rock really isn’t a very good film. It’s stunningly unoriginal, for one thing, almost seeming like a paint-by-numbers attempt at this particular subgenre. While the cinematography and shot selection is actually quite good, the musical score is eye-rolling, so heavy-handed that it felt like the music was constantly elbowing me in the side, going, “Eh? Eh? Get it? You get it?” The script is consistently awful, filled not only with howlingly bad dialogue but also so many character and plot inconsistencies that it felt unfinished, as if the dialogue was half-scripted, half-improv.
The fatal blow, however, has to be the unrealistic acting and thoroughly unlikable characters. To be quite blunt, all six of these people are shitheads: the men are all homicidal, misogynist, insane, steroidal assholes, while Sarah is a misanthropic, self-centered nitwit, Abby is a bat-shit crazy boozehound and Lou is a unlikeable jerk who spends the entire film making bitter beer faces at Abby. Not only would I never want to be stuck on an isolated island with any of these people, I didn’t want to be stuck in a movie with them, either. By the time folks started to die off, it was too little, too late: I kept hoping this would turn into some sort of alien invasion film and ETs would swoop in and turn these jackasses into ash piles. Alas, it was pretty content to stay a thoroughly pedestrian survival-horror film.
Perhaps the worst thing about Black Rock is how much wasted potential there was here. Aselton, Bell and Bosworth are all more than capable actors, while Duplass was responsible for writing not only the mumblecore films The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008), but also the way-excellent Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011). What the hell happened? Short of any kind of definitive answer, I’m going to have to assume that this all looked a whole lot more promising during the planning stages, kind of like mixing the perfect souffle, only to have the whole thing collapse into mush in the oven.