Survival horror, as a genre, has a certain advantage over other subgenres as the complete concept requires a level of voyeurism from the viewer. In just the ways the human mind works, the audience puts themselves within the shoes of those trapped against the elements or their fellow man, in which people form their own plans-of-action and retaliations throughout the course of the film within their head. Most of the time, this enhances the cinematic experience, creating more intense audience reactions and a greater investment in the highlighted protagonist. Yet, survival horror also requires a quantity of realism in its portrayal to function properly, as unrealistic reactions and unexpected “deus ex machina” will take away the audiences deep involvement in the film and may even completely ruin a films legacy for some. Luckily, Black Rock, the new survival horror from The Freebie director Katie Aselton now in limited theaters and VOD from LD Entertainment, is grounded in shocking yet acceptable realism, eventually revealing a taut, thrilling genre picture at its core.
Like many survival horror films, the premise is basic, as three women, all once friends but now distant due to personal issues, reunite for a trip to a desolate island for a weekend of nostalgic camping yet find themselves at odds with a party of mentally imbalanced hunters. The cast is small with mostly six key players at any given moment, and the location is limited, as the island leaves little to the imagination. However, Aselton’s directing style makes the island seem like an almost inescapable jungle, allowing the performances to become more physical and selfless in both appearance and content as the film soldiers on.
Black Rock, which was written by Aselton’s husband, indie actor/director Mark Duplass based on a concept of her own, is unmistakably a mean, violent film, one that sheds layers of sadism and self-deprecation amongst the characters, but wisely (and realistically so) those same characters develop their needs out of the basic desire to persevere, and make it a point to often remind the audience that these women as mismatched and overpowered at any given point. The end result is tremendously immersive and subversively feminist without any attachment of exploitation or preaching of a hidden agenda, hence the use of physical actions of desperation rather than that of secret strategic skills or an undisclosed empowerment.
As you may have picked up by now, the film rarely falls into predictability, with some rather foreseeable plot devices towards the end of the first act as the sole exception. However, following the first third of the film, Aselton removes the power of assumption from the viewer, implementing chaotic yet understandable villains and brutal tactics of “worst case scenario” storytelling to let the film unfold at a logical yet surprisingly revelatory pace. Kudos must be given to Aselton and Duplass, whose script is really the star of the film, pitting believably flawed protagonists while also creating fundamentally misguided antagonists in a disgusting, unfavorable environment with incredible dialogue, with more than few hints to Duplass’s past as a mumblecore sensation.
However, the dialogue, and most likely the story in itself, would not nearly be as strong without the fantastic cast at hand, all of whom are willing to self-debase and go with the film to depraved places yet never feel like they’re overacting or mugging for attention. Aselton herself comes across with a complex performance that is truly impressive, if just for the fact that the character appears so cold and compromised at the beginning of the film only to later become arguably the most sympathetic of the leads during dire circumstances. Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth also perform incredibly well against type, with Bell’s subtle hints at stunted maturation and Bosworth’s emotional shift from optimist to pessimist makes the horror of the situation all the more authentic and tragic. Lastly, Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson and Will Bouvier are great in their restrained but important roles as the unwilling antagonists, portraying a moral complexity surrounding their actions with a gutwrenching humanity, although the film gives the viewer much more of a reason to support their demise over that of the protagonists.
The moral compass of this film is partially one of the reasons Black Rock is not only horrific but also philosophically fascinating. In the hands of lesser directors, the film would have made an Antichrist-esque allegory of women and the savagery of nature as they defeat trained, tempered men with only their wits and improvised weaponry. However, Aselton makes the film very clear that the characters, good or bad, are somewhat responsible for their own fate in the film, whether or not the actions fall into the spectrum of right and wrong. All-too-human impulses come to the fray, and the consequences lead to physical devastation, which when complimented with threats of hypothermia, rape and torture, inspire dread without evoking a sense of righteousness. The film evokes several questions about the root of feminism, the power of co-dependence and necessity of violence, but never giving a blatant answer as to allow the audience to just experience the film as it plays. It’s the work of a matured, respectful filmmaker, especially rare within the field of genre pictures.
Despite the simplistic notions and philosophical ambiguity of the film, Black Rock will likely play best when taken at face value, allowing the subtext to permeate later with the audience after the lean 80-minute film has left the screen. The chemistry and passion shown on screen by Aselton, Bell and Bosworth allow the stakes to plausibly raise itself as danger draws near, elevating the already superb material over the generic survival horror threshold. And if the ferocious final product is any indication, the world of horror should keep a watchful eye on the eclectic Aselton as a fearless gem of genre directing.
– By Ken W. Hanley