'Black Rock' is the kind of movie that stands out more for how it was made and by whom, than for what it has to say or offer within whatever particular genre it's working in (which, in this case, would be the thriller genre). While the cast is filled with plenty of recognizable faces, none of them are exactly household names – aside from Kate Bosworth, and that might be something of a stretch as well – but what it lacks in mainstream stars or creators it more than makes up for with some indie/mumblecore cred thanks to, respectively, the on-screen and behind-the-scenes presence of Katie Aselton and her real-life husband Mark Duplass.
Here, Aselton pulls triple-duty, as she's credited with the story, acting and directing, while Duplass is onboard as screenwriter. Many will likely recall Aselton from her acting gigs, as she's been a regular presence (along with Duplass) on the FX fantasy football comedy 'The League,' as well as her appearances in films like 'Our Idiot Brother', 'Cyrus' and 'Jeff, Who Lives at Home' – the latter two being written and directed by her husband and his brother Jay. 'Black Rock,' however, marks Aselton's second foray into directing and a wild change in tone and approach, as her first film was 'The Freebie' – a 2010 romantic comedy co-starring Dax Shepard about a young couple who decide to take one night away from fidelity, no questions asked.
Needless to say, the leap from making a goofy comedy about commitment and loyalty to a thriller about three women being hunted on a remote island near Maine is a tremendous one for a second-time director. Strangely enough, though, Aselton manages to work with several of the same thematic lines of loyalty and friendship, as 'Black Rock' revolves largely around three childhood friends looking to restore their connection after a betrayal years prior set them all down differing paths.
The film opens up as Bosworth's Sarah commences plans to go on a camping trip with Lou (Lake Bell, 'How to Make it in America') and Abby (Aselton), to their childhood stomping grounds, but conveniently leaving the her two friends in the dark about the other coming along, too. Sarah is clearly the glue that holds these women together, but even her presence is not strong enough to overcome Lou's indiscretion with Abby's boyfriend several years ago – which turns out to be the aforementioned betrayal that tore this once tight-knit group of women apart. After an afternoon of bickering and tearing open old wounds, the three women make camp and prepare to settle down, only to be interrupted by a trio of men hunting whatever moves, out-of-season. As luck would have it, one of the men, Henry (Will Bouvier), is the younger brother of a guy Sarah, Lou and Abby went to school with, and with that the attempted healing of Lou and Abby's relationship is put on hold for a night carousing with three largely unfamiliar men with guns.
At this point several familiar tropes come into play, as one bad decision leads to another, causing an avalanche of blunders and misunderstandings that inevitably turn violent. While Abby drunkenly seduces Henry, Lou and Sarah are left with his buddies, Derek (Jay Paulson – better known as Don Draper's kid brother Adam in 'Mad Men') and Alex (Anslem Richardson) and soon find out the trio of men were dishonorably discharged from the military following a vague account of excessive force during an encounter overseas. To the credit of Aselton, the unease in this situation is palpable, Bosworth and Bell both excel in their struggle to navigate the troubled waters of these men's psyches in a moment where the women suddenly realize how vulnerable they truly are.
Unfortunately, 'Black Rock' follows up that substantial sense of danger by devolving into a rather plain and rudimentary chase film, in which the pursuers remain unseen for the better part of the film's diminutive 82-minute runtime. While there is plenty of surface-level tension in the hunting of the three women – in as much as the audience knows it's happening – neither Aselton nor the script do much to make that tension pay off in any sort of satisfactory way. Instead of becoming terrifying or suspenseful, the movie shifts its focus back to the fractured relationship of Lou and Abby, forcing them to confront their demons and reestablish a bond thought lost. It's certainly understandable that this examination of friendship would be more in Aselton and Duplass' wheelhouse than any watered-down suspense story, but it unfortunately comes at the expense of the film's core concept.
Ultimately, 'Black Rock' feels like two films in one: a movie about friendship lost to petty jealousies and youthful indiscretion, and a tale of survival in the same vein as 'Deliverance' or 'Southern Comfort.' And while the former actually manages to manifest itself here, it's the latter that winds up disappearing during the moments that it should take a commanding presence and truly assert itself. By the time the film reaches its climax, the discomfort it displays in trying to accommodate two aspects that are not quite working with one another is painfully obvious, and the speedy dash to a violent denouement feels less like the completion of a story and more like the director is reluctantly staying after the party to help clean up.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Black Rock' comes from Lionsgate as a single 25GB disc in the standard keepcase. The Blu-ray also includes a digital Ultraviolet copy of the film. The disc itself will auto play several previews prior to reaching the top menu, but they can all be skipped by hitting the next button.
'Black Rock' features a remarkably clear, detailed and vibrant 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that belies what must have been the film's rather limited budget. Much of this has to do with the absolutely fantastic cinematography of Hillary Spera, who managed to fill nearly every scene with lush scenery and gorgeous detail the goes well beyond the finer aspects of the actors' faces and their wardrobe by including great amounts of texture in the elements existing in the foreground and background.
As the entire film takes place outdoors, there is plenty of scenery to take in, and the image here does not disappoint. Bright, vivid colors are plentiful and realistic, as the image conveys a very lifelike image that does not over saturate foliage or atmospheric elements to make them stand out. Instead, it makes the most of a very earthy color palette that plays mostly in browns, greens and blues, but never to the detriment of the overall picture. At the same time, there is a high level of contrast that manages to keep the blacks deep and rich, without overwhelming or swallowing the fine detail during nighttime or lowlight sequences. There is also a tremendous amount of shadow delineation that keeps the image free of banding with smooth transitions between the brightest bright and the darkest dark.
In the end, this is a wonderful transfer for a film that manages to highlight some gorgeous scenery, even if the narrative doesn't quite take full advantage of the locale.
With its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, 'Black Rock' manages to utilize the full spectrum of sound on what is ostensibly a very talkative movie. In fact, the first half of the film (which only runs for 82 minutes, remember) is primarily one lengthy conversation between three women. There are other elements at play, which are subtlety integrated into the mix via the rear channels, but they never feel as though they become a full-fledged part of the audio, even when the action briefly turns over to a suspense film.
Although there is little in the way of sound effects, the film does make excellent use of its few and relatively simple atmospheric elements by introducing a persistent sense of being outdoors, whether that be the lapping of the water along the beach, a faint breeze through the trees or a rustling of tall grass. It's understated, to say the least, but its presence helps the mix to become something more than a one-note experience highlighting character dialogue and the occasional bit of gunfire or other effect denoting action.
That being said, this is primarily a dialogue driven movie, so the mix must be commended for ensuring that the characters are all heard cleanly and precisely and that the balance between the voices and sound effects/musical cues/score is handled with great precision.
'Black Rock' initially seems prepared to offer a new take on the standard thriller, but rather than explore the genre in which it is set, director Aselton and the script seem to veer off into a dissection of the character's interpersonal relationships – which would have been an asset to the film, had it not come at great expense to the plot or the necessary feeling of suspense and trepidation. As it stands, the movie could have easily fleshed out its antagonists a bit more and worked to heighten the tension, so that the character moments enhanced the pressure of the situation. While the film fails to properly excite, it does have an excellent picture and good sound that make this title worth a rental at least.