Slashers are classified as horror, but they’re really more about the thrills. There’s nothing truly horrifying about the situation because in all likelihood, our camping trip is not to end up with everyone getting slaughtered. Truly horrifying events happen in our world. It’s the all-too-common horror we become desensitized to. Women are beaten and abused and raped every day but we don’t want to stop and dwell on that. It’s too awful to confront if it’s not happening to you or someone you know. In her new film Black Rock, director Katie Aselton makes us face that horror head-on and then she steers away to the safety of the hunter-hunted thriller we’ve seen countless times before. The film can only muster horror in its violence, but then it negates that horror through clichés.
Lifelong friends Abby (Aselton), Lou (Lake Bell), and Sarah (Kate Bosworth) go on a camping trip to the remote Maine island of Black Rock. Abby and Lou have grown distant after a rift several years ago, but Sarah desperately wants her best friends to put the past behind them and enjoy a nice weekend together. While the girls think they have the island all to themselves, they run into three former soldiers who are doing some deer hunting. After realizing that one of the soldiers is the younger brother of one of their old high school friends, the guys and girls gather around the campfire for awkward chit-chat. This innocuous gathering goes horribly wrong when Abby goes off into the woods with one of the guys, he tries to rape her, she fights back and kills him, and then all of the women are captured and beaten by his friends. The brothers in arms are determined to avenge their fallen comrade and cruelly decide to release the three women into the wild to be hunted. From there, the movie becomes a mostly predictable variation on “The Most Dangerous Game” made worse by a cartoonish antagonist.
Aselton and screenwriter Mark Duplass show their mumblecore roots as the conversation-heavy first act is spent with the three women chatting, catching up, and trying to clear the air. Strangely, all of this conversation doesn’t really provide any added insight into the characters. Even after hearing them talk to each other for half an hour, we don’t know much beyond “Sarah is the peacemaker”, “Abby is distraught”, and “Lou is there so someone can clash with Abby.” All of their demeanors change dramatically when they go on the run for the lives and enter survival mode. The shift is believable, but it’s also ineffective because we never knew these women well enough to begin with, and so their transformation lacks power.
The power lies in seeing how brutally they’re treated by their male captors. Aselton never holds back in showing the unrelenting violence inflicted on her female characters. Make-up department head Liz Lash bloodies up her female leads in an utterly horrifying fashion that leaves these attractive actresses looking disfigured. The beaten and bloodied lead characters plead, bargain, and challenge in order to get off the island. But once they’re on the run, the movie remains stuck in a comfort zone where many other films have gone before.
The hunter-hunted subgenre isn’t off-limits and all filmmakers are more than welcome to find a way to reinvent it. But for Black Rock, it feels like a crutch that’s poorly embellished with vague themes about state-of-nature and sisterhood. When the women try to start reconciling their personal issues instead of focusing on surviving, the reality of their situation is further broken. Then it’s completely shattered by having one of their male antagonists go full-on cartoony psychopath to the point where you expect him to shout, “Come out to play-yee-aye…”
If Aselton has polished the survival aspect of her story and really thought through the themes and social commentary that situation could provide, Black Rock would be incredible. But the whole endeavor feels rushed and sloppy. It seems like Aselton and Duplass became enamored of the idea of three women trying to survive on an island and that having the protagonists be female was good enough. That’s deeply disappointing when the premise lends itself to critiquing a serious social issue. Sadly, the real horror in Black Rock is undermined by the artificial horror.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: