Survival stories often occupy an ambiguous space in the horror genre, lingering somewhere between misogyny and female empowerment. The "final girl" trope pits a lone, frequently virginal woman against some ungodly threat, both glamorizing her struggle and imbuing it with dread. While generally conventional, Katie Aselton's "Black Rock" contains a nice twist on the genre by dividing the "final girl" archetype among three strong women as they dodge a pair of murderers on a remote island. Aselton's unassuming guilty pleasure gently diverges from a familiar scenario with impressively tense results.
A far cry from "The Freebie," Aselton's romantic drama that served as her directorial debut last year, "Black Rock" takes its cues from a screenplay by Mark Duplass (Aselton's husband and co-star on the FX comedy "The League"). Duplass, one half of the sibling filmmaker duo behind "Cyrus" and "The Puffy Chair," has generally made a mark in the business of being funny, which makes this effort especially unique (if highly formulaic) for expanding the range of both writer and director.
"Black Rock" begins when trio of childhood friends (Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell, and Aselton) reunite for a camping trip on a woodsy getaway off the coast of Maine. Bosworth, the group's peacekeeper, tricks Bell and Bosworth into spending time together after a tricky romantic mishap drove a wedge between them. Bad blood appears to subside, but its relevance dissolves in the face of a much larger problem: When the group runs into a war veteran they know from high school, a nighttime hangout session turns sour when a drunken Aselton comes on to their old acquaintance, leading to a scuffle that concludes with the ex-soldier dead. His two pals, a pair of discharged Marines, quickly take after the women on a murderous revenge spree.
At this point, "Black Rock" transforms into a by-the-numbers riff on "The Most Dangerous Game," but the run-and-gun pacing takes on an added dimension thanks to the advanced character development preceding it. The would-be killers (Jay Paulson and Anslem Richardson) hail from ridiculously one-note archetypes, shifting into madness with little rationale behind their behavior, but their targets endure a vacation from hell and plausibly go through the motions to survive the night. They belong in a better movie than this B-movie indulgence.
As a director, Aselton plays by the book, offering up a slick, uncomplicated style occasionally enlivened by telling close-ups of her terrified protagonists. A surprisingly gory showdown at the movie's end nearly veers into slapstick mode before Aselton reels it back in, although that also makes her narrative more coy than the material aspires for. "Black Rock" never reinvents the rules, but it understands them just well enough to make its bloodless stabs at ingenuity stand out.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Picked up for a U.S. release by LD Distribution, "Black Rock" premiered to a mostly positive reaction in Sundance's midnight section, but it will be a tough sell unless it can be marketed as a mainstream horror film, in which case it could do solid business on its opening weekend.