Seemingly crafted to validate the fears of those conservatives who rage that the white man can’t get respect on the big screen these days, Katie Aselton’s smart-till-it-isn’t thriller Black Rock centers on a tense scene of hero-pantsing and gender inversion. The piece-of-shit bad guys, a couple of vets of our desert wars, have tied up a trio of Massachusetts women who sport New Girl bangs and an understanding that this world has a use for them. The vets—who throughout most of movie history would be the heroes—have all been dishonorably discharged, are given to fits of inarticulate rage, and stand psyched to gut the women. But the women—who throughout most of movie history would be saved by some other soldier or hero—turn out to be the one thing these stone killers can’t handle. One of them, Abbie (Katie Aselton, who also directed), faces down the lead killer and snarls, “You fucking pussy!”
This throws the bad guys, gives the women the chance to light out into the wilderness, and sets us up for what the press notes call “a dangerous game of cat and mouse.” (Is there any other kind?) The story and its violence are deeply silly, but there’s something nervy and upsetting that distinguishes the film’s incidental excitement. Here’s a bloody babes-in-the-woods adventure flick whose leads suffer great viciousness at the hands of the dregs of the American military. To save their lives, the women spend a reel stripped bare and set loose in nature, either bereft or set free of their real-world selves. Hoping to score some useful items, they dig for a time capsule they had planted years before, mining their own girlhoods for salvation. And at that (first) direst moment, Abbie saves themselves by flinging at their captor what it is that he thinks she is—just a pussy. Cultural studies majors, pre-order your Blu-rays now.
That confrontation follows a strong setup and much engaging character work from Aselton, Kate Bosworth, and Lake Bell, who play three somewhat estranged friends having a go at a camping trip. They boat out to a small island not far from their hometown, with the hope of reconnecting—and maybe finding that time capsule. Their chatter is offhand yet polished, funny when it needs to be and affectingly strained at others. Their grudges and jokes seem real, and this trio mucking through a weekend in the woods together would have been enough for a likable indie.
But then they meet the soldiers. Aselton and screenwriter Mark Duplass craft an excellent comedy-of-manners campfire scene between the townie grunts and these three young women, all apparently college-educated, doing OK financially, still valued members of the culture at large. Despite having gone to the same high school, the women can’t find anything to say to the men, and so they all sit and look at each other. What do their lives have to do with each other?
Eventually, of course, once the bad things start happening, their lives have everything to do with other. Unfortunately, Aselton and Duplass treat their antagonists with exactly none of the care and insight they bring to their heroes. The guys are simply rage monsters, rape-happy townie gun-nuts hunting Taxachusetts liberals. They’re a leftist’s analogue to the North Korean villains of Olympus Has Fallen, the commies of Red Dawn, or all the foreigners movie heroes have had to kill throughout Hollywood history. Black Rock upends most American action films’ nativist impulses, but it never settles into satirizing or transcending them. Instead, it offers the same old escalating skirmishes and brutal climax in the service of a mirror-image fear: not that the country might be taken away, but that it might be taken back.
Once the chasing and the shooting starts, the villains prove a poor endorsement for military training. These guys (played by Will Bouvier, Anslem Richardson, and Jay Paulson) are convincing neither as characters, threats, nor soldiers. While the film is smartly short, the final battle is prolonged and confused. For most of the film, Aselton spares us the sight of flesh being ripped, the camera never quite capturing the moment of impact. This tasteful elision becomes a liability as the fights drag on, and by the end it’s tricky to tell whether characters are actually getting hit or cut or stabbed. You’ll still be able to follow what’s going on, though, because that big ending—which apes the sloppiness of real-life violence—is built upon beats you’ve seen in hundreds of movies before.