For an 83-minute thriller, Black Rock sure takes its sweet time getting to the supposed “good stuff.” Maybe that’s because, for director/star Katie Aselton, the film’s fight-for-survival plot is less interesting than the trio of estranged heroines it encompasses. The relaxed, extended first act commences with a hoodwink, as Kate Bosworth tricks childhood companions Aselton and Lake Bell—who haven’t spoken to each other in years, for reasons not immediately revealed—into accompanying her on a weekend getaway. (She fakes a terminal illness to break the ice, a stunt that foreshadows the life-and-death stakes of what’s to come.) The women’s destination is a wooded island they frequently explored as kids. Beyond its more foreboding qualities—what could possibly go wrong on a secluded rock surrounded on all sides by freezing-cold water?—the remote locale provides a common ground on which these one-time best friends can talk through their issues. And talk they do: Working from a script by her husband, the ubiquitous Mark Duplass, Aselton revels in the heated conversation between her at-odds characters. Will the mayhem arrive at all?
It does, and that’s the principal problem with Black Rock: It sets up this distaff-Deliverance scenario much better than it pays it off. The young women eventually encounter a face from their childhood, an old playmate with some dangerous new companions. Boundaries are crossed, accidents happen, and soon the three are running for their lives through the dense foliage. As promising as this development seems, Aselton appears at a loss as to how to wring any real terror out of it. The villains, while admirably fallible, disappear frequently from sight and mind. (A stronger director might have created tension from their absence.) And instead of stretching out the wild hunt into a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, Black Rock sprints for the end credits. It’s the rare thriller that feels too short, too lean.
In the film’s best (and funniest) scene, one friend saves another’s sanity by slapping the shit out of her; that expression of tough love, not the bloodshed surrounding it, seems of chief interest to Aselton. Ultimately, it’s hard to shake the sense that her picture is a character study bending itself, painfully and unnaturally, into the shape of a nightmare-in-the-boonies horror flick. Is this the only way films about female friendship can get greenlighted these days—by drenching themselves in genre tropes?