The same reasons that make Katie Aselton’s second feature “Black Rock” hard to embrace are the same ones that make it admirable. A completely unexpected turn from her 2011 debut “The Freebie,” which was as utilitarian as indie first features come by centering on a couple who give each other a free pass for one night in Los Angeles, her latest spans a timeframe not too much longer. Yet by moving the action – with a real emphasis on action – to an island in New England where a group of three young women try to escape the clutches of some newly delisted soldiers from Afghanistan after both parties come looking for a little R & R, Aselton challenges herself to make a physically brutal thriller that’s successful on a visceral level if not a logical one.
Despite the fact that Aselton already has one film under her belt, “Black Rock” can’t ever entirely shake the notion it’s a calling card film, indulging in individual scenes that are full of tension even if the film’s structure is full of holes with characters surprisingly vacuous for a script by Aselton’s husband Mark Duplass. It begins when Sarah (Kate Bosworth) and Lou (Lake Bell) pull up to the dock for a weekend of sand and surf and see that Abby (Aselton), an unwelcome guest is waiting for them. As it turns out, Abby and Lou have a long-standing beef that’s gradually revealed and yet after Sarah tries to lighten the mood with an ill-advised untruth about her medical status, the trio crosses the water to find an old acquaintance of Lou’s there with his war buddies.
The din of Ben Lovett’s score and Hilary Spera’s moody cinematography suggest nothing good will come of this and when a dinner of Spaghetti-O’s and “a shit ton of wine” that Abby brings leads to a reckoning with the vets after Abby begins to flirt with Lou’s pal, the women are left to their own devices in the verdant island’s bushes and trees to fend for their survival. Although there’s no trouble in believing Aselton and Bell can stand up for themselves, with even the particularly lithe Bosworth doing some heavy lifting, the series of incidents that force them to go on the run defy credibility at nearly every turn. To Aselton’s credit, they often serve as a means to an end in terms of setting up interesting scenarios for the trio to circumvent, but the film never can be as suspenseful nor as serious as it’d like to be as it wears on when there’s always reliably an easy out and while Aselton and Bell close the distance in their strained relationship pretty quickly and display a easy chemistry with each other, Bosworth never seems as connected to either, despite the fact she’s the bridge between them.
However, if Aselton was out to prove she’s capable of making an action film, she has no problems in that department, keeping the film at a rat-a-tat pace for its 82-minute running time and taking exploitation elements to their extreme, whether it’s the considerable amount of time she and her costars bare their flesh to make one harrowing escape or a gruesome finale that spares no blood. “Black Rock” is the kind of endeavor that can run on spirit alone, if you let it, and although it won’t ever become a staple of the genre, it does well by it, providing a far more enjoyable getaway than the ladies on the screen experience.