There is, ultimately, something to be said for the pleasures of a simple, sleek and well-shot run-or-kill-or-die thriller where our heroes, trapped in the middle of nowhere and confronted by hostile locals, strike back to survive. And that, at heart, is what "Black Rock," the second directorial effort from Katie Aselton is, no more, no less. If you're hoping for a transcendent reinvention of the form, keep moving. If you're looking for a film like Aselton's erotic, neurotic and superbly acted "The Freebie," pass along. If you're looking for a well-executed example of a sub-genre, not as good as "Deliverance," but far better than a host of similarly-constructed films with bigger budgets and smaller IQs, you'll probably appreciate what "Black Rock" offers with its Y-chromosome inflected plot and script.
Based on a story by Aselton — and a script by her frequent collaborator and husband, Mark Duplass — "Black Rock" begins as three old friends meet. Sarah (Kate Bosworth) is driving her pal Lou (Lake Bell) up to the coastal Maine town they grew up in to camp on the island they used to love as kids. Sarah has also invited Abby (Aselton), but the trick is that Lou and Abby hate each other — years ago, a brief moment of infidelity and betrayal destroyed what they had. But the three soon fall back into easy rhythms, the long-standing feud between Abby and Lou soon giving way — or at least lightly covered — by the even longer-standing friendship between the three of them. They have Spaghetti-o's and a bunch of liquor and a map to the time capsule they all buried when they were 10. It's going to be fun.
It seems like even more fun when three hunters show up, Henry (Will Bouvier), Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anselm Richardson). The girls went to school with Henry's older brother, so they feel fine, even as the guys explain they're freshly back from three tours split between Iraq and Afghanistan, returning with a dishonorable discharge after a mere 18 days. Then Abby drunkenly makes a pass at Henry, and Henry goes too far, and then Derek and Alex want to kill the girls for what they've done.
Just as in "The Freebie," Asleton has assembled a terrific team. Cinematographer Hillary Speara makes the island beautiful and terrifying, and manages to shoot nighttime scenes that are just the right kind of fake — clear enough for things to be seen, dark enough for things to be scary. Peter Golub's score, heavy on the stentorian strings you want in a thriller, also deserves kudos, and the addition of four dark, loping bass-heavy tracks from The Kills is a nice touch.
As for the performances, they're excellent — and another reminder that, judged against its fellow films in its field, and not some of the more serious-minded films at Sundance 2012, "Black Rock" stands out. (Then again, the mainstream slasher — usually seen as a remake, usually backed by Michael Bay — has become a fairly debased currency.) Bell's wide, animated face serves her well in the light comedy when the three friends are reuniting, and crimps down to something scared and scary when the guns come out. Bosworth, who big Hollywood never quite seems to know what to do with, gets to play both a woman with a good heart and a woman with bad intent. And Aselton gets to go on a similar curve — audiences who know her only from her loopy, hilarious turns on "The League" will be startled, and gratified, to learn just how frighteningly strong she looks hissing out threats and promises through a mouth smeared with blood.
Some more strident and narrow-minded horror fanatics — not fans, but fanatics — will possibly find "Black Rock" too talky, or not violent enough. Then again, character development and establishment of relationships has never been too much of a priority for non-judgmental horror junkies who are, traditionally, more interested in seeing a woman's heart or mind in a clenching hand or on a sharpened blade than understanding said woman's heart or mind. At the same time, Aselton doesn't strain to underline or highlight the subtext with droning speeches or heavy-handed clumsiness, getting in, getting on with it and getting out in a crisp, chilly 83 minutes. "Black Rock" isn't going to become the sort of classic that "Deliverance" was, but if you like your scares smart, and like them to happen to people you actually care about as more than bags of blood, Aselton's island of friendship and fury is a nice place to visit for a little pleasant scenery and some unpleasant chills. [B-]