Friday, August 2, 2013

Movie Review: Black Rock

Black Rock
Directed by: Katie Aselton.
Written by: Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton.
Starring: Katie Aselton (Abby), Lake Bell (Lou), Kate Bosworth (Sarah), Will Bouvier (Henry), Jay Paulson (Derek), Anslem Richardson (Alex).

As horror movie fans, I think we have to admit that the history of horror movies is, by and large, rather misogynistic. They are often about beautiful, scantily clad women being chased through the house, woods, etc. by sadistic monsters, rednecks, etc. before being killed off in increasingly gory, disturbing ways – sometimes, though not always, after being raped. The only way for a woman to save herself in a horror movie is to be as pure as the driven snow – if she gives into her sexual desires at some point, she’s doomed. This is, of course, a gross simplification of horror movies, but you know as well as I do that it describes many horror films – some great, some horrible. Given this history, I like it when a films tries to do something different – tries to actually have something intelligent to say about gender roles, and particularly women, rather than to treat as sexy objects to be ogled at and then slaughtered. If for no other reason, Black Rock should be admired for at least trying to do something different – even if I’m not convinced that it actually succeeds in its aims.

Black Rock starts out as female bonding movie. Sarah (Kate Bosworth) has arranged to go to the island off the short of New England with her two childhood best friends – Abby (Katie Aselton) and Lou (Lake Bell) – but neglected to tell either one about the other. Sarah’s two friends have been feuding for years – because of a betrayal on Lou’s part – and Sarah is trying to bring them back together. At first, they resist, but eventually relent and head off to the island. But their resentments cannot stay buried for long, and old wounds are opened.

Eventually though, this will take a backseat to a more immediate threat. They think they’re alone on this island, but then they run into three ex-soldiers, just back from Afghanistan (with an unlikely story of how they were dishonorably discharged) who are there to hunt. The girls realize they know one of the three of them. Abby, who is married, though we sense unhappily, gets roaring drunk, and starts to flirt with one of the men – the two of them eventually heading out into the woods together, where Abby changes her mind, and the soldier doesn’t let her – leading to, of course, death. The other two soldiers then decide to kill all three girls – but the girls won’t go down quietly.

The movie was directed by and stars Kate Aselton, who also came up with the story, although it was her husband, Mark Duplass, who actually wrote the script. It’s tough to tell if the screenplay is what Aselton thought up when she came up with the story – for instance, it is purposeful that the female characters often talk like men, or is it a sign that Duplass isn’t great at writing female dialogue? While Aselton’s direction cannot overcome that problem, she does sidestep two other potential pratfalls in the screenplay. When the women get beat up by the soldiers, they are left bloody and bruised – and for once, the bruises and cuts look painful and ugly – not the typical sexy black eye many horror movie heroines get. And later in the movie, when two of the female characters have to strip naked, it isn’t played for titillation – despite the fact that the two women are beautiful, there is nothing sexy about this sequence – as there may well have been had the movie been directed by a man. So while the screenplay may have been a setup for another slightly misogynistic movie, Aselton sidesteps that trap fairly nicely.

What she cannot do however is disguise the absolute shallowness of the three male characters. I wonder if the movie was meant as some sort of political commentary – the three soldiers, who represent the worst the army has to offer (no heroes in that bunch) meant to stand in for conservative America, who attack three, liberal women from New England. The two sets of characters vaguely resemble the clich├ęs both liberals and conservatives have about each other (at least on cable news), but this is so underdeveloped that if it was intentional it comes really comes through. The men are basically one note characters – no more developed than any other band of faceless redneck killers. And Aselton also cannot handle the climatic fight sequence – which is clumsily handled to say the least.

I think Black Rock is a horror movie with honorable intentions – a film that tried to reverse the long held misogyny apparent in many horror films. That it doesn’t really succeed is a shame, because it has a promising setup, and the idea is long overdue. But the film is too underwritten to truly accomplish what it sets out to do. Black Rock is a film where I admire the intention far more than the results.

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