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Black Rock | Review

No Picnic At This Rock

For a long time now there’s been a problem with the output of horror films made in America. Let’s face it, the French are currently the masters of the genre and over the past decade American filmmakers have borrowed mercilessly from them (and yes, there were several years where J-horror seemed to influence everything as well). And rather than remake every genre classic from ten or twenty years prior, many a studio (and hack director) seems to have forgotten that what scares audiences the most is usually something we can’t see and more often than not, something impossibly simple. Director Katie Aselton has made a genre picture that recalls those genre classics of decades past. Black Rock, her sophomore effort is one of the best American thrillers in recent memory and it’s impossibly simple.

Three childhood friends converge for the weekend on a remote island off the coast of Maine, a locale that happens to be a magical memory for them from their youth. Sarah (Kate Bosworth), the instigator of the get together, has tricked her girlfriends, Lou (Lake Bell) and Abby (Katie Aselton) into tagging along. Turns out that Lou and Abby are in a feud that’s lasted several years, ever since Lou slept with Abby’s fiancé. Abby, currently in the middle of a crumbling marriage (with a different man) has never forgiven Lou, her best friend, for such a dirty deed. As these two bicker mercilessly with Sarah trying to keep the peace, the three friends run into three male hunters (though it’s not hunting season).

One of the hunters turns out to be a younger brother of the girls’ high school classmates. Over a campfire, Abby becomes incredibly inebriated, flirting aggressively with one of the men, and leading him off into the woods for what looks like a sexual rendezvous. As her friends converse with the other two hunters, they learn some eerie information about where the men have just been. Meanwhile, in the woods, Abby suddenly realizes she’s had too much to drink and she’s going to be sick, prompting her to put a stop to the sexual proceedings. However, when her interested party doesn’t take no for an answer, the situation quickly escalates into a fight for survival, pitting the three women against the three men.

It’s apparent that Aselton’s main influence for Black Rock was John Boorman’s 1972 infamous classic, Deliverance, but beyond the apparent influence, Aselton’s film is definitely her own, sharing, at most, a theme of horrifying stakes to survive. Scripted by her husband, Mark Duplass, the three females are well developed characters, but it’s Abby, played excellently by Aselton (her visage even resembling a hang dog sort of Isabelle Huppert as the film quickly progresses) that elevates this film into more than a girl power exercise or simple men vs. women tale.

If the three men aren’t as well rounded characters, this really only works to the film’s advantage. How much do you really remember about those hillbillies in Deliverance anyway? In fact, the vague details we pick up about these three men is an even more terrifying specter glazing over the proceedings, and, is indeed a daring detail, a subject not often explored outside of documentaries. Aselton has also managed to put together a killer soundtrack for the film, using several tracks by The Kills. Most notable, an amazing mood setting track “Future Starts Slow,” that perfectly establishes the ambience that begins and ends the film. While Aselton’s 2010 debut, The Freebie may have had its issues (though, in truth, it’s a perfectly fine first film), she definitely shows she has a knack for bringing intriguing narratives to the screen, touching on themes that both her male and female counterpoints aren’t often exploring. Black Rock is quick, fun, and exciting, and proves Aselton to be a director whose work we should definitely be excited for. Let’s hope her future in film doesn’t start slow.

Reviewed on January 23 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – MIDNIGHT Programme.

83 Mins.

Rating 3.5 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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