Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, a filmmaker at a creative impasse seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons in intense and surprising ways. Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lázaro, Grantham Coleman, Lindsay Burdge, Lou Gonzalez, Shannon O’Neill, Alexander Koch and Jennifer Kim.
The one key aspect of this film that can’t be ignored is its choice to spit itself in two, which will be an extremely divisive decision as the two parts are both related and yet highly irrelevant to one another. If you enjoy the first chapter, it’s ironically more likely that you won’t enjoy the second. Thematically, the first portion feels very female focused, the twisted mind games that Plaza’s Allison plays with this very tumultuous couple had huge potential for a dark, sadistic film but it’s sadly short lived. The second portion may feign being focused on Allison but is not at all told from her perspective, instead from Abbott’s Gabe. It’s a jarring difference that changes the tone of the film entirely, from something perfectly warped to a story of emotional manipulation and toxic film sets, as well as the culpability of those that allow it to happen. From then on it slowly evolves into something unnecessary and disappointing.
Yes, the film is artistic, stylish and touches upon that classic energy of trying to never be easy to read but all of that is undercut when its story reveals its shallow nature. If nothing else, it’s a very clear example of the type of filmmaker that should not be allowed to step onto a set. A man who’s willing to destroy his own wife’s mental health for the sake of his film and is ultimately rewarded rather than condemned for his actions. Sadly, similar events have likely occurred in the past, Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall on The Shining comes to mind but that doesn’t mean it’s something that should be given airtime without exploring the repercussions. Particularly when it’s not trying to look at the story through the eyes of its victim, it shows her emotional turmoil but never truly tries to sympathise with her, instead using her for the drama. It might have been interesting to see if that might have changed at all, if there had been any women writers working alongside Levine. As it stands, it starts out on the perfect foot, bringing all the atmosphere and energy that films like The Rental completely missed out on but its second chapter and ultimate resolution are a sincere let down.
However, you can easily see why Aubrey Plaza would want to get involved in a project like this, it’s a role that allows her to break out of the box of quirky, indie, sarcastic women that Hollywood has put her in. Undoubtedly she shows a huge amount of talent with this performance, proving her abilities far beyond what her average role has allowed. She’s the key to this film and had the writing allowed her to explore that sadistic side more, they could have had a real gem on their hands. Christopher Abbott is always one to be wary of in film, he typically plays characters that have an inherent darkness to them. This role is no different, he’s arrogant, self-involved and fairly sociopathic but to Abbott’s credit these are things that he brings to the screen effortlessly. Sarah Gadon gets to break out a lot more in the first half than the second, which is a shame because her performance in the earlier half is very emotionally charged and layered, the latter is much more formulaic. The surprise is more the ensemble of actors who play the crew of Gabe’s film, they’re a fantastic bunch, they’re all very natural, charismatic and sympathetic. It would have been great to get a chance to explore more of their personalities but this film is far too inward focused to allow for that unfortunately.
Black Bear starts out on a sadistic, dark, curious and gripping note, it’s almost uncomfortable to watch the wonderfully paced, constant contradiction of its dialogue but sadly, its second chapter steps in the opposite direction. Ultimately the mind games that the characters play with one another in the film are well done but the ones the film tries to play with its audience are cheap and transparent. Plaza proves her sincere talent with this raw, visceral performance but the story doesn’t give her the platform she deserved to really let loose. It unfortunately has a pretence of being female focused but is instead telling the story of men emotionally manipulating women for their own gain, with no consequences which feels like a misplaced effort in today’s landscape. If this film had continued on in the style of its initial impression, it could have been something spectacular which makes it all the more disappointing that it threw all that away.