I wasn’t expecting much from this movie — it’d been on my radar for about a year now, and I’d even gone as far as watching the preview a few times. But though it sounded like a female take on the movie Deliverance, a concept I found promising in theory, I read a few reviews that said that was pretty much ALL it was. That it didn’t go any further than that — just a straight-up “campers attacked in woods by rednecks” with no attempt to explore any larger ideas.
When it turned up on a blogger’s list of his favorite horror movies of the year, though, I decided to give up and give in (though I’d argue this isn’t a horror movie at all — it’s a thriller. There’s a difference. No, srsly, there is. THIS IS IMPORTANT. (Okay, not really.)).
Oddly enough, the critiques of Black Rock I’d read got it backwards, in my opinion — the problem with this movie isn’t that it makes no attempt to explore any larger ideas, it’s that it tries too hard to explore larger ideas and fails to pull it off.
The story is about three young women, Abby, Lou, and Sarah — best friends since childhood until two of them got into a massive fight and quit speaking to each other. In an attempt to mend the rift, Sarah tricks the other two into joining her for a camping trip on Black Rock, a remote island off the coast of Maine where the girls had camped many times before as kids. After an initial round of, “If SHE’S going, I’M staying!,” Lou and Abby finally give in and the three women head out for their trip.
Back when they were girls, they’d buried a time capsule on the island, drawing themselves a rudimentary map so they could go back as adults and dig it up. Sarah’s plan to “rebond” Abby and Lou involves spending their first afternoon tracking the capsule down. But the plan backfires when, after hours of hiking (and bickering), they can’t find the damn X marking the damn spot. Finally, they give up for the night, build a fire, and pitch their tent.
They’re just settling in when they hear a noise from the ridge above them. Suddenly, three men appear — a group of hunters armed with rifles. After exchanging a few words, Abby realizes one of the hunters, a dude named Henry, is the brother of an old high school classmate of hers. So she invites the fellas down to the beach to hang out and pass a bottle around.
The evening starts out fun, as the gang eats, drinks, and gets to know one another. But things get a bit tense when it’s revealed that the three men are Army buddies who, just a few weeks prior, had been dishonorably discharged from duty in the Middle East after Henry had carried out some kind of act of unsanctioned violence. When Derek and Alex say they credited Henry’s act with saving their lives, though, the women relax again. Surely the military just overreacted about whatever it was,. These fellas seem like good guys! Here, pass me the whiskey, glug, glug!
Not long after, Abby has one drink too many and begins to flirt shamelessly with Henry. Seductively, she invites him to join her for a walk in the (now completely dark) woods, and he agrees with a wink at the others around the campfire. Back in the trees, Abby starts to kiss Henry, but when he presses her for more, she changes her mind and says she wants to return to the group. Only, Henry isn’t taking no for an answer, and as he pushes her down to the ground, she picks up a rock and bashes him over the head, accidentally killing him.
When Henry’s pals find out what happened, there’s no sympathy for the bruised and battered Abby. Instead, they both go absolutely apeshit. Soon, the girls are running for their lives, trapped on a tiny island with no way to contact the outside world. You can pretty much take the story from there.
Black Rock is not a terrible movie — it’s entertaining enough. But it has some pretty major flaws. To begin with, there’s nothing unique about any of the female characters — they play very strongly into stereotype, right down to the (over) peppering of their dialogue with the filler word “like” (which, frankly, really started to grate on me by the end). Nor is there anything terribly compelling about their relationship with each other.
Even worse, while the movie attempts to make a very obvious point about a woman’s right to say no at any stage during a sexual encounter (no matter how much she’s been flirting), I think the writer (Mark Duplass, director/star Katie Aselton’s husband) thought he was doing more with that concept than he actually managed to accomplish. The other women are all quick to dismiss her feelings of guilt (of course it’s not your fault! you did nothing wrong!), but ultimately, both Abby and her friends are SEVERELY punished for her actions. I’m not sure that was QUITE the take-home message we were supposed to be getting.
I was also really bothered by the characterization of the men, which was completely nuance-free. There’s no attempt to make them seem like actual thinking, feeling human beings — they’re just rapist, murdering monsters, which makes them about as interesting as, say, Michael Myers. There’s plenty of room in this film for thoughtful characterizations on both sides of the gender bar, but none of that happens.
And, man, don’t even get me started on the completely bizarro scene in which the women get soaking wet and strip completely naked when they start to get cold — in the dark, in the middle of the woods, while being chased by violent rapist murderers. Riiiiiight. While that might make sense from a survival perspective, when they end up later running off, boobs a’flyin’, without taking their clothes with them, all that plot device’s legitimacy and integrity runs off with them. No woman being chased by violent bad guys would be so willing to be completely unclothed for that long, to be that physically exposed. At a minimum, I think underwear would stay firmly in place. This just didn’t make any sense, which made it feel either like an attempt to get the attention of the males in the audience, or, more likely, an attempt on the part of the (male) writer to make some kind of point about the women’s confidence in their bodies, their selves. Perhaps we were supposed to think of them as strong Amazonian warriors, refusing to conform to society’s mores for women? Only, it really only ended up feeling extremely awkward and nonsensical, and more than a little disturbing. I honestly don’t quite know what to make of that scene, but it sure bugged me.
But, you know, whatever. The biggest problem with this movie is that I got the sense from it quickly that it was trying to give a “feminist” spin to a fairly classic tale, making some kind of big, important point about women (or maybe about women in film). But when you try to do something like that and it’s clear you just don’t get it, that makes your movie a lot worse than if you’d just stuck with straight-on, boring ol’ action thrills.
They really should’ve stuck with straight-on, boring ol’ action thrills, is what I’m saying.
In any case, it’s not unwatchable. Which is more than I can say for some of Lake Bell’s other movies. So there you go.
Cast: Katie Aselton, Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth, Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson, Carl K. Aselton III