Black Rock unfolds on an island that becomes a Hunger Games-style arena, which is fitting since the film itself plays out like a sporting event—a bloody tug of war between the harshly offensive and the surprisingly fascinating. The setup is simple: Three lifelong friends, Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell), and Abby (Katie Aselton), the latter two of whom have rocky, unresolved issues, head out for a girls’ weekend on the Maine island they explored in their youth. Sarah brings along a dog-eared map from the old days, and convinces her pals to use it to find their childhood fort and buried time capsule. The film begins with a lot of falsely mundane, improv-y banter (including Lou and Abby’s strained spats about their past), which is no surprise considering this is a product of a mumblecore power couple: Mark Duplass, who wrote the script, and his wife, Aselton, who conceived the story and directs. With the symbol of the time capsule already in place, it doesn’t take long for a very specific dread to set in—that this is simply another chatty tale of thirtysomething arrested development, set against an outdoorsy backdrop with some thrills tossed in. Ostensibly, such a summation isn’t far from the truth, but the film largely succeeds at transcending simplification, just as it overcomes its deplorable rendering of unhinged ex-soldiers.
During the ladies’ nostalgic jaunt, which Aselton punctuates with one too many “Isn’t this picturesque?” transition shots, they come across another trio, comprised of recently, dishonorably discharged vets, one of whom, Henry (Will Bouvier), went to school with the girls. A campfire powwow leads to some drunken seduction on the part of unhappily married Abby, which in turn leads to an act of violence that yields potential for all sorts of tasteless developments, from slut-shaming to PTSD mockery. The latter does present itself when the intimate getaway transforms into a contained battle of the sexes, and it’s tough to forgive even if the film is staying true to its clear Deliverance influence by stereotyping the enemy. But, otherwise, expected developments sail out the window, and issues of gender, both on screen and off, take center stage as Black Rock’s complex crux.
From the start, and from a standpoint of social-norm consciousness, the girls seem to talk like boys, dropping f-bombs constantly and saying things like “Right on” and “We’ve got a shit ton of liquor.” And later, after ample shocks have been unleashed, and Lou and Abby, in hiding, have to shed their cold, wet clothing, both Bell and Aselton appear fully naked on camera. With the (sometimes unwatchably brutal) men-versus-women action taking place in the movie itself, one may find tangential notions boiling up about what went on behind the scenes, despite the fact that the project is a trusted collaboration between husband and wife. Where does Duplass’s influence end and Aselton’s begin? Improv or no improv, would the girls be speaking that way if a woman had penned the script? For all the clear, appropriate, primal-state effectiveness of the nude scene (which is surely the film’s best, as it doubles as a stirring reconciliation for Lou and Abby), it could warrant charges of unconscious titillation because it was written by a man.
Layered conflicts mount as the lean Black Rock treks on, and they’re not limited to gender politics. For instance, while this is very much a film about sisterhood, it’s also, like The Loneliest Planet, about the isolationism of survival, a theme perhaps symbolized by the solitary island locale. Mostly, though, it stirs up a thick soup of ideas about female depiction on screen, right down to the gory wounds the girls endure. One wonders if it’s harder to view because the blood spurts from women’s flesh, but eventually, the questions are less for the filmmakers than they are for the audience.