‘Black Bear’ Is Mesmerizing, Relentless, And Deeply Unsettling (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: A-

Among all of the nice things that could be said about Black Bear is the fact that it wastes no time thrusting the viewer into a deep sense of discomfort that never lets up throughout the 105 minute runtime. Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine has crafted an already uncomfortable premise, then slowly chips away at his characters to the point it abruptly upends itself partway through, and eroding any chance of settling into conventional narrative bearings. Beyond its singular setting — a remote cabin in the Adirondacks.

Things start off with actor-turned-director Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives at the gates of the lakeside property, hoping to for some kind of creative rejuvenation. Though whatever intent she had to relax is quickly derailed by the couple hosting her. Meeting Allison at the gate, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) tries making smalltalk, telling her of some sketched out plans to make the cabin into a creative haven for artists and filmmakers. He also does his best to get to know his guest, the the effort are quickly shot down with a reflexive kind of self-deprecating defensiveness. It’s a technique that Plaza has routinely employed in her prior work, but never with this kind nuanced insecurity.

As Allison tries to keep her hosts at an arms length, the tension between all three of them starts to mount. Gabe is clearly worried about his wife, Blair (Sarah Gadon), due to her pregnancy. What starts out as marginal bickering quickly escalates over an argument over how her drinking wine with dinner, then carries over into Gabe’s extended rant about the erosion of traditional gender roles causing the downfall of society on a whole. Sure it’s chauvinistic (and also wrong), but Gabe continues to rationalize it through his Sensitive Guy persona.

Thanks to more wine and more weed, what started as an already-uncomfortable moonlit dinner only gets worse from here, as Gabe and Blair continue to air their dirty laundry. In a desperate attempt to reset the conversation and ease tensions, Allison apologizes for her snide remarks while peeling back some layers she’s built up around her own vulnerability. In doing so, Blair assumes she’s simply trying to placate Gabe, which naturally brings out accusations of infidelity.

Never shying away from its relentless pacing, the story appears to reach an unresolvable climax before taking a dramatic right turn. The characters stay the same, at least by name, as does the setting in the cabin. However, the circumstances and the power dynamics shift, some dramatically, and what had felt like Knife in the Water-era Polanski abruptly collides with Adaptation-era Kaufman.

Suddenly, the cabin is now an actual film set, and the hub of creativity that it was previously envisioned as, with Gabe as the director with a penchant for psychological mind games against his lead actor, Allison. While Plaza played the character with a flawed, cunning restraint, she absolutely indulges her bourbon-fueled impulses throughout the second half. Similarly, the subtle deviance of Gabe and Blair, which previously played out as part of some psychosexual routine, becomes an secretive ploy to extract the most realistic performance — regardless of its emotional toll.

Exactly how these two halves relate is never explicitly spelled out, instead inviting what could a number of ways to dissect how Black Bear frames the enduring, and often troubling, relationship between creativity, power, and insecurity. Despite its daring lack of convention, Black Bear is told with resounding confidence, cemented largely in Plaza’s equally unrelenting performance. It’s not exactly the easiest watch, but it’s the rare kind of film that invites repeat viewings, inviting reinterpretations, as well as what audiences may continue to take away from it.

Black Bear is currently available on VOD. 

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