I kept forgiving “Black Rock” for being a so-so action movie because I was waiting for it to turn into something else: a rumination on gender roles, perhaps, or even an examination of the government’s ambivalent response to the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But no, as it ambled along to its fairly inevitable climax, it was clear that a so-so action movie is all it was ever planning to be. One could argue that waiting for a movie to improve counts as actual suspense, but in this case, that’s an exceedingly generous interpretation.
Pity that, because “Black Rock” seemed to be brimming with potential, from its appealing leads (Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth and Katie Aselton) to its pedigree (the screenplay is by Mark Duplass, co-writer of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and “The Do-Deca Pentathlon,” among others; not coincidentally, he’s also married to Aselton, who directed).
“Black Rock,” which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, opens with Sarah (Bosworth) tricking her long-estranged-from-each-other best pals Lou (Bell) and Abby (Aselton) going camping with her on an uninhabited island where the trio ran around and made “Goonies”-inspired treasure maps in their childhood.
After a day of hiking – and Abby confronting Lou about sleeping with Abby’s ex-fiancé – they encounter Henry (Will Bouvier), the younger brother of one of the women’s high school classmates, who’s on the island hunting with friends Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anslem Richardson). That night, a drunken Abby flirts with Henry and leads him into the woods; when he gets aggressive and attempts to rape her, Abby tries to fend him off before finally hitting him in the head with a rock, accidentally killing him.
This doesn’t go over well with the other guys, since Henry saved their lives in Iraq – the men don’t go into details, but whatever Henry did got the three of them dishonorably discharged – and suddenly the women find themselves unarmed and hunted down by two very dangerous, unpredictable, rifle-toting veterans.
Duplass’ screenplay does at least let us know that any character can die at any moment, but that’s about the extent of its daring or unpredictability. We don’t really get to know any of these women all that well before the shooting starts, so it’s hard to feel invested in the characters beyond hoping for their survival.
As a director, Aselton doesn’t do a very good job of establishing the geography of the limited space that encloses the action, which deprives us of suspense since we can’t always figure out where characters are in relation to each other on the island.
Despite these drawbacks, the performances are mostly interesting: Aselton (who co-stars with Duplass on FX’s hilarious “The League”) and Bell are more known as comic actresses, but they get literally down and dirty here, generating intensity even when the plotting doesn’t. Newcomer Bouvier obviously gets less screen time than his co-stars, but he convincingly turns on a dime from apparently sweet-natured to terrifyingly violent.
Given its resemblance to earlier films ranging from “The Most Dangerous Game” to “I Spit on Your Grave” to the cult 1976 post-Vietnam fable “Shoot,” it seemed that “Black Rock” might take its very basic premise and use it as a platform to explore larger ideas. But even on its own terms as just a lean-and-mean genre exercise, this one’s not all that interesting.