Monday, March 10, 2014

(Black) Rock Paper Scissors

First, a rant.

I'm a woman. Been so for 32 years and counting, leaving me a realistic 27 years to make, keep, and occasionally lose friends, many of whom are female. In these 27 years of BFF comings and goings, both of myself and within groups of friends who are friends, there is one thing that has never happened:

I have never, in 27 years of conscious awareness, personally witnessed a friendship end because one female was intimate with another female friend's partner.

Is this a thing that a lot of women DO? According to cinema, yes. The same women who keep their bras when lounging at home, exercise with their hair down and go to sleep with full makeup on are the norm, and the norm also sleeps with or has to watch their beloved sleep with a girlfriend. 

Movies don't lie, right?

Anyway, that's my preluding gripe with Black Rock, the otherwise fairly believable female-centric thriller.

Quick Plot: Sunny Sarah (Kate Bosworth) attempts to reunite two childhood besties with a surprise weekend getaway to a New England island they partied on as kids. As you might guess from my prolonged prologue, some tension is afire due to Lou (Lake Bell)'s previous romantic entanglements with Abby (director Kate Aselton)'s then-boyfriend. 

Now in their early 30s, the ladies attempt to make the best of an awkward situation by humoring Sarah's quest to find their old clubhouse, where a VHS of The Goonies surely awaits in watchable condition (remember: VHS tapes are the cockroach of media). Before pillow fights can ensue, the ladies bump into a trio of young hunters, one of whom Abby is quick to drunkenly flirt and share a can of Spaghettios with.

NOTE: Share a can of spaghettios is not a sexual term I'm aware of. But I also tie my hair back when working out, so I might just actually be a dude.

All is not so carefree once Abby goes a little too far with her new friends, quickly revealed to be recently dishonorably discharged soldiers. Before you can spit on anyone's grave, the ladies are running, swimming, and tree climbing for their lives. 
There is nothing particularly new about Black Rock in terms of plot or style, so let's just address the main reason this film has found some footing: it's a genre film directed by a woman.

As much as I wish this wasn't something that needed to point out in 2014, it really, really still does. In Black Rock's case, this is especially important because we're dealing with the type of film that has so often found itself stewing in debates of gender and misogyny. While not exactly a 'rape revenge' flick (despite critics like Rex Reed's assertions, suggesting that he apparently doesn't watch the films he gets paid to review), Black Rock does put pretty women on the run through the wilderness from very bad men. We know where this usually goes.

It's refreshing then to say that while not officially or aggressively a feminist film, Black Rock handles its gender issues quite well. The men are stronger because of their size and military training, yes, but put three healthy thirtysomething females against them and the fight becomes realistically even-handed due to their smarts and will. The film even manages to deal with, without OVERdealing with, Abby and Lou's complicated boyfriend past. When the going gets rough, the lingering feelings of betrayal are acknowledged, resolved, and ultimately made into a good and necessary laugh. If a trio of sociopath soldiers were hunting me down and the only help I had was a former friend who ruined my love life, I tend to think that's exactly how I'd deal with that too.

Even more vital to seeing what makes Black Rock a little more knowing than some of its peers is how it handles that always complicated cinematic issue, nudity. Hey guys, did you know that women take their clothes off every day? Actually, TWICE a day, and sometimes more. Again, a century of cinema has taught us that nudity is only useful for stimulating its presumed male audience. Observe the token camera leering breast shot that seems so central to even the most rushed rape scene, something so clearly focused on for all the wrong reasons in films like Silent Night Deadly Night and Blood Games (a film so female unfriendly that rumor has it, the studio tacked on a fake female name as its director).

Side Note: I still love Blood Games. It's a vengeance flick about a female baseball team. But just as I love Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and don't pretend Kevin Costner is even trying, I can also adore A League of Their Bloody Own without ignoring the fact that it's got quite a bit of misogyny in its running time.

My point, and maybe I do have one, is that seeing how Aselton handles nudity is vital to understanding why Black Rock is a worthy film, even if it seemingly offers nothing new in its storytelling. In many ways, this is indeed just another Deliverance-inspired thriller. But the fact that it's so deliberately FEMALE in its execution helps to point out some of the problems these types of films can so often run into. 

High Points
I've been awfully hard on Kate Bosworth following her Lois Lane in Superman Returns (if there was a more offensive case of miscasting in Hollywood, I've yet to see it) but watching her in Black Rock was a pleasant reminder that she has genuinely likable screen presence. No, she wasn't and probably never would be believable as a 25 year old Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with spunk, but as Sarah, Bosworth really does have a sense of ease in front of the camera that helps to sell not just her character, but her character's friends.

Low Points
For the most part, the protagonists of Black Rock behave the way you want them to in this kind of situation. But it behooves me to mention such key frustrating moments as 'survivor holds gun, then seems to drop it (I think offscreen) to better fight her enemy with a child-friendly pocketknife'

As the reigning queen of the I Don't Have An Indoor Voice Club, even I was shouting "Shhhhhhhhhhh" at key moments

Lessons Learned
Black rocks are the hardest rocks of all

Always bury a useful treasure. You just never know when you’ll need that junior pocket knife in the wilderness

Seriously ladies, SSSSSHHHHHHHHHH!

Black Rock is a slick and efficient little survivalist thriller not without its flaws (GRAB THE GUN!) but well-worth a visit. There are better tellings of this tale, but the utter female-ness of a film in this genre makes it a prime discussion piece for the topic. 


  1. Sadly girls "stealing" their friends boyfriends does happen... and guys screw their friends girlfriends. I mean probably it doesn't happen a LOT but I've had/witnessed several different iterations on that theme played out among my larger friend group, though not into our 30's but from high school through college? Yes, this happens. It sucks, but it happens.

  2. I guess my friends are all such prudes. Ah well. Boo sisterhood!

  3. Girls putting their hair up is sooooo impractical! ;)

    I like survival films, so I might have to give this one a looksie at some point.

  4. I'd be really curious to hear your thoughts Matt.

    And yeah, I didn't get into my rant about keeping a hair tie on your wrist at all times in case of escaping from mad Army vets. Next time..