Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sisterhood of Deliverance: "Black Rock" a lean, mean femme survival machine



Black Rock (2013)
83 min., rated R.

If you ever wondered how 1972's "Deliverance" would play out with women—minus the inbred banjo players—on a smaller, cost-effective budget, "Black Rock" would be the result. But that comparison undersells what this film has going for it. With the story conceived by actor-director Katie Aselton (2010's "The Freebie") and the script written by her husband, mumblecore auteur Mark Duplass (2011's "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"), this Kickstarter project is a collaboration of two disparate sensibilities that work well together. This begins as a laid-back, slightly spiky character-driven slice-of-life with a driving music score and then grows into a lean, mean indie survival-thriller with a female-empowerment slant. What it isn't is a vile, gratuitous revenge-of-the-woman exploitation picture like, blech, "I Spit on Your Grave" (either version will do).

Thirty-something Sarah (Kate Bosworth) tricks her two squabbling/estranged girlfriends, Lou (Lake Bell) and Abby (Aselton), into camping on a remote island off the coast of Maine for the weekend. With Sarah being nostalgic about "The Goonies," her plan is to follow their map (from when they were all 10 years old) to a treasure. The other two try putting a sore spot aside (Lou drunkenly slept with Abby's then-boyfriend), but the three of them sharing one tent becomes mighty trivial when running into three guys on the island. One of them is Henry (Will Bouvier), an Iraq-Afghanistan soldier whose older brother went to high school with them and had a crush on Lou, and the other two (Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson) are vets who deem Henry to be a hero for saving them. They've only been back eighteen days after being dishonorably discharged from overseas. Before long, both sets of trios sit around a campfire, leaving Abby to work up some liquid courage, hook up with Henry in the woods, and accidentally kill him in self-defense when he gets too rough. Things consequently turn ugly and when push comes to shove, it's kill or be killed.

"We are all dying," Sarah says to Lou and Abby before taking a boat to the island. Though she is generally speaking about life's unpredictability ("We could get hit by a bus tomorrow; we have no idea what's going to happen!"), none of them can predict the frightening truth in that blunt statement. As it unfolds from the scenic region and birds chirping to something as harsh and gritty as the rocks, "Black Rock" is realistically, ruthlessly tough and savaged as it needs to be without turning gratuitous or exploitative. Ultimately, the film benefits from its own conceptual simplicity. It's not some deep-dish rumination on gender roles or a comment on post-traumatic stress disorder. It's just three women hiding and fighting for their lives from two armed war vets in the unknown of the forest.

Screenwriter Duplass knows enough about economy and minimalism, having made his name on etching characters through short treatments and filling in the rest with improv. Wholesale, these women have a very natural dynamic and a long history. If anything, "Black Rock" misses an opportunity to be even talkier in its opening moments, fleshing out the individual backgrounds of Sarah, Lou, and Abby. The men aren't developed much at all, but at least at first they seem harmlessly introverted rather than obviously bad. But, once the hunt begins, Team XX fearlessly takes charge and we still don't want to see these women get hurt. Refreshingly, they aren't screaming, cowering slasher-flick numbskulls. When they take to their survivalist instincts and seek bloodlust, they aren't trained female MacGyvers or superwomen either; they just feel like real women who have it in them to be strong and resourceful. As an additional respite from convention, there's even a credible power shift, as the de facto leader later becomes scared and weak.

Transcending the film are the three lead performances. In one of her more physically demanding roles next to "Blue Crush" (in which she led two other strong women, too), Bosworth is the glue, making peace between Lou and Abby and just hoping to have her three-woman gang together again. Interestingly, Bell and Aselton (both stretching well beyond comedy here) pull off being flawed but sympathetic and then vividly trim down to their barest, most primal and animalistic states. They both reconcile in an affecting scene that easily could have seemed ridiculously out-of-tune given the circumstancesthey're naked, having huddled together to prevent hypothermiabut it's finally time for them to strengthen their estranged friendship and still hold a jokey sense of humor amidst everything that's happened. 

Flowing and quickening at a compact 83 minutes, it's a technically well-made, beautifully shot film that handles its characters and violence on an even scale. Some thrillers these days would even kill to be as authentic, urgent and harrowing as "Black Rock." It might be too straightforward and simplistic to hold a major impact, but Aselton and Duplass have still made a bleak, tense, and efficient thriller with a memorably punchy final shot. We need more like this.

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