Sundance Review: BLACK ROCK

Katie Aselton's second feature is a terrible, generic stalk and kill thriller. What happened to this promising filmmaker?

A group of girls go camping. They run into dangerous types in the woods. The dangerous types begin stalking them. The girls, terrified and pushed to their limits, fight back for survival.

That generic plot has been used by hundreds of films. Even neophyte horror fans will recognize the beats in this overly-familiar formula. In the best films, this plot is a hanger upon which more interesting ideas and stylish concepts are placed. In the worst films this plot is just a well-trod footpath for unimaginative filmmakers to follow before selling their bad movie to Anchor Bay to be released as DTV filler.

For at least two thirds of Black Rock's running time I was hoping that its painfully trite story - summed up exactly in paragraph one of this review - was a cover for something interesting, some sort of twist on the genre that would validate the film's existance. But it's not. There's not a single original, interesting or unique moment in all of Black Rock's interminable running time. It is as rote a piece of garbage as I have ever seen.

I held out hopes for Black Rock because it comes from filmmakers who I like. Director/star Katie Aselton's last film, The Freebie, was a wonderful and cutting look at the problems of monogomy. The script was written by her husband, Mark Duplass, whose Baghead was an inventive and playful version of a cabin in the woods movie. Surely these people would come up with something special, I figured. And surely Sundance wouldn't program a completely bog standard stalk and kill movie, right?

Aselton stars alongside Kate Bosworth and the alluring Lake Bell as three old friends who return to an island that once held sentimental value to them. Years ago they buried a time capsule on the island, and in an attempt to heal their wounded friendships, they're going to dig it back up. But trouble comes in the form of three recently returning GIs, dishonorably discharged, who stumble upon their camp. A drunken night leads to an attempted rape which leads to a self-defense killing which leads to the remaining two crazy vets hunting the girls across the island. You know every single thing that will happen after that.

The addition of the crazy vets was probably the most baffling moment of the film. That trope is so old, so attached to the Vietnam War, that I couldn't believe it was being trotted out here. It's especially weird because it feels to me like our modern relationship with our vets is very different from our relationship with vets in the 70s. There are no further levels to these vets - it's unbearably lazy screenwriting. They're just crazy vets.

I suppose that Black Rock could be serviceable as a bland version of the genre if it were well made, but the movie is completely devoid of tension and scares. While Aselton proved herself an able filmmaker with The Freebie, she's utterly out of her depth here. The final confrontation between the girls and the vets is shot and edited so terribly as to be laughable. Someone in my group compared it to a Tim and Eric sketch, and that's a fair description; the fight is sluggish and the violence is trite. The practical FX suck as well, with a slit throat having about the same level of veracity as my high school backyard VHS slasher films.

I rarely take such things into consideration, but at the Q&A after the movie Aselton said the script was written in 18 hours. I'm surprised it took them that long. There's something so contemptuous about this movie - such a sense of 'We can do one of those, no problem, no effort' - that I find myself going from disliking Black Rock to actually hating it. Black Rock plays like a movie made by people who have never seen stalk and kill horror films; it's easy to believe that Aselton and Duplass thought they were doing something unique with the genre by having the girls fight back, but this has been happening in the genre for decades now.

There is an inkling of something interesting in Black Rock when the women work together to fight the vets, but the movie is so half-assed that this isn't executed in any original or interesting way. There's a women's POV stalk and kill movie to be made exploring the ideas of cooperation and inclusion as a way to defeat patriarchal tactics of division and demoralization, but Black Rock ain't it. And by the way, lest anyone think I'm just judging this film as a terrible horror movie, let it be known I'm judging it as a terrible movie altogether. The film's attempts at themes are feeble; the leader of the vets is the younger brother of the girls' school friend, completing the movie's lame attempt at being about dealing with the repurcussions of the past. The theme is there, it just doesn't work at all.

Nothing in Black Rock works. I have a conspiracy theory: Black Rock was a Kickstarter movie, and Aselton raised a few grand to buy an Arri Alexa camera to shoot the film. I believe that the movie itself is just a fundable excuse to get a really good camera, because there is not a single thing in Black Rock that makes me think anybody involved gave a shit about the movie they were making.

Know that this review pained me. I like Aselton and Duplass a lot. On general principle I will see anything the Duplass Brothers are involved in, and I was really excited to see what Aselton did after The Freebie. But Black Rock did more than disappoint me, it flat out made me angry at the condescension shown towards me as the audience for horror and thriller films.