Multi-hyphenate Katie Aselton returns to Sundance with her second film, a much different outing than her gorgeous and melancholy 2010 entry, The Freebie. This time around, Aselton has ceded writing duties to her husband, Mark Duplass, and the pair have made what will likely be referred to as “Deliverance for girls” for many years to come. But Black Rock is a twisty little horror outing that perhaps shares more with The Freebie than might be obvious from first blush. Both films hinge on interpersonal relationships, the confusion of behavioral signals and perceptions, and mistakes that have far-reaching consequences.
Yet, Black Rock is most certainly a thriller and a genre picture, and its wooded island setting, thumping soundtrack (with remarkably sage picks from The Kills), and grim plotline only serve to show how well Aselton can cross genres with style.
The film is centered on a trio of women, friends since childhood who were fractured years before by a mistake made by one of them against another. Aselton’s Abby has held a grudge against Lake Bell‘s Lou for years, and their mutual best friend Sara (Kate Bosworth) is determined to finally put the feud to rest (and to heal all those terrible emotional scars that have yet to close up) on a weekend getaway. The three set sail (with Abby and Lou begrudgingly going along with Sara’s somewhat duplicitous plan to get them back together) for a wooded island off the coast of Maine where they spent many happy times together as kids. Of course, they are not alone on the island (no, seriously, of course).
What begins as an emotionally awkward and situationally stilted trip soon turns into an unexpected fight for survival. This time around, it’s Abby who has made a mistake, one fueled by alcohol and a secret she’s been hiding from everyone, that causes unstoppable repercussions for everyone on the island. The theme of “mistakes” runs quite thickly through Black Rock, and it’s fascinating to be able to pinpoint moments when everything went wrong, moments that, had they been even slightly changed, would have completely changed what plays out for our three leads.
Those mistakes force the girls to run for their lives, trapped in a situation that leaves them with only one option – kill or be killed. Abby, Sara, and Lou tap into their animal instincts in ways that are both believable and somewhat awe-inspiring, egging each other on for the toughest battles, psyching each other up for the most wrenching of actions, and (to put it quite plainly) just being general badasses. What ensues is, unfortunately, not fraught with enough tension to sustain some of the film’s most pivotal moments, leaving the audience desperate for more of the film’s more nail-biting sequences. But while that lack of sustained tension is the film’s primary downfall, it does allow Aselton and Duplass to stray from other traditional horror tropes. Black Rock is refreshingly free of jump scares and cheap tricks, and it’s given to more realism than we’re used to with standard horror flicks (particularly when it comes to the film’s fight scenes). The film ends up being an economical and thought-provoking relationship drama that just happens to be framed up as a horror outing.
The Upside: The film is the festival’s most surprising sophomore effort, with director and star Aselton kicking convention and going for a brand new genre and worldview post-The Freebie. The film has got style and flair, a sexy and scary soundtrack, and Aselton and Duplass nicely craft relationships between the three leads for maximum effectiveness.
The Downside: The story and structure of Black Rock is one we’ve seen many times before, a familiarity that likely removes some of the film’s tension.
On the Side: Am I the only person who finds Mark Duplass’ other venture into horror (with brother Jay), Baghead, totally scary?