Black Bear (2020)
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott
Some films are specifically designed to create tension and suspense, which is, of course, why we call them suspense films, or thrillers. Usually this would be the realm of Alfred Hitchcock or John Carpenter, building up tension through our fear of a monster or killer, or that our protagonist is going to get caught in a spy thriller. Black Bear is nothing like any of these films, but is more suspenseful than any of them, because it is fundamentally about people being flawed individuals. There’s a certain kind of stomach-dropping disgust we feel when watching people make stupid decisions that we can’t look away from.
Taking three opposing characters in the form of Allison the film director (Aubrey Plaza), Gabe the guitarist (Christopher Abbott), and Blair the former dancer (Sarah Gadon), and putting them in a cabin with wine, breaking relationships, and a pregnancy, is a potent cocktail for interpersonal disaster, and there’s the feeling that things can only possibly go downhill. Tempers flare up, and even a simple conversation over dinner about what people do for a living has more tension than Saw. When you use supreme direction, as Michael Levine does, actually shooting the thing like a thriller, with deliciously creepy music composed by Guilio Carmassi and Bryan Scary, every hackle goes up on the back of the neck and remains there throughout the film’s complete runtime.
If one should watch Black Bear for anything, despite the incredible direction, poised editing from Matthew L. Weiss, and brilliant cinematography by Robert Leitzell, then you should watch it for Aubrey Plaza’s performance. Rarely do performances displaying such a massive range and incredible skill come around. Having to give a complete 180 mid-way through the film, it is the performance of a lifetime, bringing stoic humour and humanity to the film before chasing it down with a healthy dose of pity. So much of the film goes on body language, on what is not said rather than what is, on the subtext of the performances – to watch Plaza in this film is a complete delight. You watch, enraptured, as Allison’s psyche and soul is laid bare.
The film plays around with character roles and narrative structure to dig deeper into the spider-webbing thoughts of a mind in turmoil. It presents a scenario and expects the audience to be able to keep up, but unlike some films, this unique structure is not the entire point of its existence, but merely another aspect. With other films that do so similarly, using Memento just to pluck an obvious example of a non-linear structure, one is perhaps more likely to discuss the way the story is told before the story itself. Black Bear simply uses its own unique narrative structure as a way to tell the story. It’s refreshing to see a film that trusts in us as an audience, effectively saying ‘they’ll work it out, now let’s keep it on the characters’. Because of this, Black Bear manages to pull this strange, disorienting story off by grounding it in something so utterly truthful and real, ensuring that the story is both familiar and uncharted territory.
Black Bear is about relationships spiralling out of control under chaos or stress, and because of this it is horrifying to watch, but all the more compelling for it. It’s like being a moth entranced by a lamp; satisfying even though you know it will burn your eyes out. In the end, it works because the characters are engaging, the performances are electrifying, and even when a moment or two throws you off, the film pulls you back in through the characters without missing a beat. It’s tense in almost every frame, it’s funny when it has to be, awkward when it wants to get you itching in your seat, and most of all it’s true to life. Black Bear is utterly brilliant.