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Black Rock' a hard place

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Taut thriller a story of survival

In a summer season dominated by big-budget sequels and CGI-laden action extravaganzas, it can be a nice change of pace to find films that are a bit more of a challenge. These films can be both simpler and far more complex than the popcorn fare being churned out by the major studios.

One such film is 'Black Rock,' directed by Maine native Katie Aselton (TV's 'The League') and written by her husband Mark Duplass ('Zero Dark Thirty') from a story by Aselton.

'Black Rock' is the story of three women Sarah (Kate Bosworth, 'Straw Dogs'), Lou (Lake Bell, TV's 'How to Make it in America') and Abby (Aselton) estranged childhood friends who have come back home to Maine for a reunion of sorts. Their plan is to spend the weekend on the uninhabited island that served as a headquarters for some of their more cherished childhood experiences together and try to work through some of the personal issues that have caused them to drift apart.

As they set up camp, they discover that they aren't alone. They encounter Henry (Will Bouvier, 'Fighters'), the younger brother of one of their middle school classmates, who is on a hunting trip alongside two of his buddies from his time in the military. Henry, Derek (Jay Paulson, 'Red & Blue Marbles') and Alex (Anselm Richardson, 'Animus') join the three women, but it soon becomes clear that something isn't quite right.

All it takes is one mistake in judgment to send everything spiraling out of control. What was intended as a weekend of reunion and reminiscence soon becomes an all-out battle for survival.

This film is a very spare, stripped-down thriller, so the performances at its core are incredibly important. Without dynamic work from the three women at the center of the action, 'Black Rock' would collapse completely. So it's good that the three of them mesh so well. Bosworth offers a sense of sweetness and yearning for closeness. Bell informs Lou with a snarkiness that evolves into real strength. And Aselton's Abby develops from coarse and borderline unlikeable into someone we can't help but root for. Directing yourself is hard, so it's particularly impressive that Aselton pulls it off. 

The performances from the men don't quite measure up. There are flashes of dimension, but for the most part, there's not a lot of depth to their characters. That isn't to say that they don't bring anything to the table Paulson in particular carries an air of real menace but it might have been nice to see a bit more on that end.

The insular nature of 'Black Rock' comes through in its setting an isolated island, just far enough from civilization as to feel completely removed from it. That sense of remove creates a tense and spooky atmosphere, casting a pall over the proceedings that accentuates the isolation both figuratively and literally. And when that feeling of isolation is punctured and punctuated by brutality, the violence is that much more effective because of it.

There's a lean-and-mean quality to Aselton's direction that ties in wonderfully with this script. The film checks in at a relatively tight 83 minutes; there's an economy of motion that pervades throughout. She brings out the ferocity in her cast herself included while still grounding her story atop a foundation of realism.

'Black Rock' is a tight, taut thriller comparisons to films like 'Deliverance' are not unapt that is borne aloft by the strength of the performances at its center. If this is the quality of work we can expect from Aselton going forward, we'll certainly be seeing even more from her in the future.

3.5 out of 5

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