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Black Rock (partial)

This is gonna be a different kind of review, folks.

Overcome with a sudden case of cinematic wanderlust, I was in the mood to seek out a hidden arthouse gem. It had been a while since I gave some word-of-mouth to an obscure and interesting movie, and I wanted to try it again. So I took my hands off the wheel and the winds guided me to a showing of Black Rock at the Living Room Theater.

And it all went downhill from there. Not because of the movie, mind you, but purely because of fate.

This marks the very first — and hopefully the last — time that I will ever attempt to write a blog entry on a movie that I deliberately chose to walk out of partway through. I always thought that if this day came, it would be due to an indescribably and insufferably bad movie. But no, this day came due to technical difficulties.

I could bring myself to forgive the minor fritzing and skipping that kept happening from the very first frame, but I finally had to get up and ask for my money back when the audio flat fucking cut out. Whole lines of dialogue were completely muted near the 45 minute mark, almost exactly at the halfway point.

To be fair, Living Room Theater did offer me a comp ticket that I plan to use in the near future (it expires in nine months, you see). Even so, in all of the years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen such a breakdown in this or any other theater. The first time I’ve ever seen a movie come to a full stop partway through, and it happened at the Living Room Theater. That breaks my heart, because I’ve always associated Living Room Theater with the epitome of moviegoing luxury in Portland. I meant every word when I called it “enough to make any moviegoer feel like a king.” I’m trying to be fair (technical difficulties do happen, after all) and I’m trying to be grateful for the comp ticket, but it’s a huge disappointment all the same.

Anyway, I’m left with a dilemma that I’ve never even contemplated before: To write or not to write? After all, I’ve only seen half the movie. How could I possibly give any kind of an informed opinion with only partial knowledge of the second act and no knowledge whatsoever of the third? On the other hand, the first half was enough to get several thoughts swirling around in my head, and I feel compelled to share them. It would be one thing if this was a totally worthless movie, but I can’t just brush it off. This film deserves its day in court.

In the end, as a correspondent of mine pointed out to me on the ride home, it really comes down to the question of whether or not this film is worth a second chance. All hard feelings about the venue aside, could I bring myself to justify spending the time to try watching this movie again? After thinking it over for a great deal, I’ve decided that the answer is “no.”

As such, this review will be a very drastic break from my usual format. This will NOT be an analysis of Black Rock as a whole, nor will it be any attempt at arguing why this movie is or is not worth your time. Instead, it will only be my attempt at describing what I saw in the first half and why I will not be going back to see the second half. You can call it unprofessional, you can call it unhelpful, you can even call me petty if you like. I won’t argue any of those points. I realize that this is less than ideal, but I’m not exactly happy with the circumstances either. I’m simply doing the best I can with what I’ve got. With all of that in mind, here goes.

To start with, this movie peaked my interest due to the involvement of one Mark Duplass. Though I had heard of him in years before, the guy won me over in a big way with Safety Not Guaranteed and Your Sister’s Sister. Even if he wouldn’t be acting in this movie, he still got a writing and exec-producing credit here, and that was enough to get my attention. That said, he wasn’t the main creative force here.

That honor goes to his wife, Katie Aselton. She co-wrote, directed, and starred in this picture after performing similar duties for some Dax Shepard film called The Freebie back in 2010. I missed out on that one, but it was apparently enough for Capone at Ain’t it Cool News to put Aselton in the same class as Brit Marling. As one of the rare blessed few who know of Brit Marling, I call that high praise.

The movie opens with our three main characters, all of whom have been tricked into going on a camping trip together. See, all three of them were childhood besties back in the day, until Lou (Lake Bell) went and slept with the long-time boyfriend of Abby (Aselton). It was six years ago and Abby has gotten married to some other guy in the time since, but there’s still a great deal of animosity and unfinished business there. Even so, they’re still mutual friends with Sarah (Kate Bosworth), though she’s upset that the two are still bickering.

In an attempt at solving the feud, Sarah convinces Lou and Abby to come on a camping trip to an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine. The place holds significance because it’s where they used to play as kids. In fact, there’s a time capsule buried there somewhere that Sarah is eager for the three of them to find and dig up.

Oh, and did I mention that there’s no cell phone reception on the island? Well, that goes without saying, really.

Things are going well enough, all things considered, until three hunters show up out of nowhere. One of them (Henry, played by Will Bouvier) is vaguely familiar, as he’s the little brother of an old grade school classmate the girls used to know. The other two, however, are total strangers. Ostensibly, the three of them are out on the island for hunting. This despite the fact that it isn’t hunting season and there doesn’t appear to be any game on the island.

Anyway, the two groups get together and share stories. We learn that Henry and his friends served in the military overseas and were dishonorably discharged only a few weeks ago. They claim to be unfairly maligned war heroes, though of course their accounts are unreliable.

With all of that background out of the way, things start to go wrong. Henry dies for accidental reasons and his buddies decide to avenge him by killing our protagonists. The girls manage to escape their pursuers (why they don’t shoot the guys with their own guns is anyone’s guess) and run to hide in the forest.

At this point, it should be obvious that this is meant as a kind of survival horror film. What makes this different, however, is that it’s a survival horror film written by the guy who made Cyrus. The Duplass Brothers and their creative family have shown tremendous skill with dialogue and character development in the past, and that talent is on full display here. Maybe it’s just because the first half is naturally going to be heavy with exposition and establishing dialogue, but this is a horror movie that clearly put building characters over building atmosphere. It was a neat touch, and a very refreshing change of pace.

I should also add that the Duplass films I’ve seen all have a remarkable core ensemble, and this one is no different. Though I’m sure it helps that they have such wonderful dialogue to work with, our lead actresses all acquit themselves wonderfully. I’m not even a fan of Bosworth or Bell, and I must admit that they played their parts quite nicely. As for Aselton, she appears to be equally at ease on either side of the camera, and it certainly helps that she isn’t afraid of making a drunken idiot out of herself.

And while we’re on the subject of the characters, there’s a particular scene that’s already developed a great deal of infamy in certain arthouse circles. I’m of course referring to the scene in which Katie Aselton and Lake Bell both strip completely nude and huddle together for warmth. In all honesty, I never got to watch that scene for myself, and it was one of the strongest reasons I had for going back to see it a second time. How could my opinion on the film be worth anything without an informed stance on that pivotal and controversial scene? My reasoning is as follows.

First of all, I’m of the opinion that nudity alone is a terrible reason to see a movie. If I want to see women topless, I’ve got the internet. If I want to see Lake Bell topless, I can look up screencaps of “How to Make It in America.” There’s absolutely no need for anyone to waste time and money on a sex scene in any given movie when so much quick and free erotica is so easily accessible. Who gets how naked is certainly a factor for some, and I can understand why, but there has to be more to it.

In this case, according to the interviews I’ve read, the scene is meant to show these two characters devolving to a more primal state of mind. They’re in the forest, alone and unarmed, away from the comforts of home and stalked by predators. Of course they’re going to start acting a bit more animalistic. Then again, I don’t really need the scene to tell me that was going to happen. It’s a very shocking and novel way of expressing the idea, to be sure, but I don’t need to see it to know how it happens and what it represents.

Furthermore, the scene is meant to depict the characters well and truly burying the hatchet. In this life-or-death situation, their petty six-year squabble really doesn’t matter. Again, it’s a shocking and novel way of expressing something that was clearly going to happen anyway. I didn’t need to see their reconciliation to know that it was going to happen.

(Side note: Didn’t The Grey deal with quite a few of these same themes? Just imagine if the characters in that movie tried the same stunt. It would’ve been a whole different movie!)

But all of this is beside the main reason why I won’t be giving this movie a second chance. That dishonor goes to Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anslem Richardson), Henry’s old war buddies. These two began dragging everything down the very moment they first appeared onscreen. Amid all the believable and well-written characters in the cast, these two cardboard cutouts stuck out like a sore thumb. In a clear show of the filmmakers’ inexperience with horror, Derek and Alex might as well have been followed onscreen by the Grim Reaper himself for how they’re so obviously the bad guys.

Derek is by far the worse case in point. Just as soon as Henry dies, Derek goes homicidally insane to a laughable degree. Even his buddy Alex is like “Dude, take a step back and calm the fuck down.” Derek is seriously the only person in this movie without an ounce of common sense, which makes him look and act like he belongs in a totally different movie altogether. It’s distracting, it’s annoying, and it’s not the least bit interesting or entertaining to watch.

Moreover, it’s worth remembering that these two are discharged war vets who only just returned from active duty. The film seems to suggest that Derek might have been driven mad by some form of PTSD, or maybe he joined the army precisely because he was a vindictive asshole. In any case, tying this cartoonishly evil dickweed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan carries implications about our post-9/11 veterans that I can’t find it in my heart to approve of, especially since there was no need for any of the villains to be veterans in the first place. In point of fact, there was no reason for any of these guys to be there in the first place. Why were they hunting out on the island anyway?!

As a reminder, Black Rock may have gone on to answer these questions and plenty more in the back half. I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care to know. The “slasher” is so painful to watch and he was there for such contrived reasons that I can’t justify a rewatch. It also doesn’t help that Katie Aselton and her colleagues are so clearly inexperienced in the genre of horror, though their skills with character development and dialogue pay dividends several times over.

I’m not the least bit sorry that I gave this film a chance. It’s a bold experiment created by a team of very talented filmmakers going out of their comfort zone, and I respect that. It’s just that my comp ticket will likely be better spent elsewhere, is all I’m saying.

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