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Review: ‘Black Rock’ Plays the Mildly Dangerous Game

By  · Published on May 17th, 2013

Here’s the thing. If your movie is going to feature two attractive women, completely nude, my first reaction shouldn’t be to laugh. And my second reaction most definitely shouldn’t be to hope they get dressed as soon as possible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Black Rock is a new thriller with a fairly unusual pedigree. Katie Aselton (The League) stars and directs from a script by her traditionally light-hearted husband, Mark Duplass, and the resulting film is an occasionally successful hybrid of character piece and generic slasher. It essentially drops well-written characters into a highly traditional genre scenario, and while the combination has its benefits it also allows for more than a few issues.

Sarah (Kate Bosworth) has planned a relaxing weekend trip with her two best friends since childhood, but she’s neglected to tell each of them that the other is also coming along. While they were once a tight trio an act of indiscretion committed years ago by Lou (Lake Bell) against Abby (Aselton) has kept the two on the outs ever since. Sarah’s intentional deception is in the hopes that the other two can finally bury the hatchet and once again be friends. The plan is to camp overnight on a remote island off the coast of Maine, an isolated and wooded area they considered their playground kingdom as children, but their arrival is interrupted by the discovery that they’re not as alone as they expected.

It’s here where the film moves into some very familiar territory as the three women finds themselves targeted by what amounts to some aggressively disturbed men. The movie becomes a cat and mouse game of failed escape attempts before the women realize their only chance of survival is to channel their own inner animal instincts and fight back.

The film is undoubtedly a thriller, but where most in the genre pick up once the action starts this one is actually at its best before the first drop of blood is even spilled. Duplass’ script fills his protagonists with humanity and depth often absent in genre films fleshing each of them out in distinct ways. Sarah is the peacemaker, Lou is the slightly wild one and Abby seems to have it all figured out, but they’re also each more than that simple descriptor. The actresses in turn bring them to charismatic and feisty life turning them into characters we’re invested in and concerned for.

Well, except for Abby. She can suck an egg.

The trouble starts though when the trouble starts. Characters who had felt real and believable suddenly veer toward the typical women-on-the-run-from-psychos we’re used to. They make some questionable decisions (including that stimulating but utterly ridiculous nude scene) before finally deciding to fight back, but even as an incredibly big deal is made of their newfound and aggressive tenacity their resulting actions are weak and half-hearted. Basically this second half of the film is a series of frustrations falsely elevated by a recurring and unnecessary message of girl power competing with the theme of our pasts coming back to haunt us.

The efforts to drive that last point home, the one about repercussions for past transgressions, threaten to undue the character work accomplished early on, and it’s not long before they do just that. This heavy-handed theme spills over into the killers’ laps as well once their oddly stereotypical story is revealed. Events and silly acts leave us no one to really root for, and that’s hardly the aim of a thriller.

It sounds like the film is more bad than good, but there are elements to enjoy here. In addition to the strong opening and solid acting the score by Ben Lovett creates momentum and energy even when the visuals don’t. The film also looks good thanks to some starkly beautiful cinematography (even if the action scenes feel a bit sloppy).

Black Rock thinks it’s doing things differently, but instead it makes all the same moves an equivalent direct-to-DVD thriller would. Good actors and some legitimate laughs don’t change that. That said, it’s still a better than usual example of the genre strictly due to the level of acting and a first act that invests its characters with humor and humanity.

The Upside: Solid dialogue between friends used to create depth in relationships; energetic score; strong acting for the genre

The Downside: Suspenseful bits feel manufactured not natural; theme doesn’t stick its landing; girl power flails

On the Side: Black Rock premiered at last year’s Sundance… as in January 2012.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.