Black Bear (2020)
Written & Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine
I always find it a delight when I finish watching a movie, discover that I love the film, but have no idea how to decipher it. I’ve met people who react to pictures like this with rage as if the movie was personally insulting them. My take is that challenging cinema is fun and makes your brain work in ways that most media purposefully does the opposite. Many larger budget films are designed around the idea of overloading your senses or sedating you with familiarity. So, when a movie comes around, they jostle me out of that; I’m definitely going to be intrigued and want to know more.
Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a troubled actress/screenwriter/director who has come to an isolated cabin in upstate New York to create something new. The property is owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Blair (Sarah Gadon), who welcome Allison and make sure she feels comfortable there. Gabe is obviously intrigued by Allison, and Blair quickly picks up on this. Gabe begins spouting ideas that contrast to what Blair knows about him, and she starts to call her husband out in front of their guest. Allison recesses further into smoking weed and drinking to escape the personal chaos between these two people. Things take a strange & bizarre turn, all centered around the black bear trying to get into the trash outside the home. What we think we knew about the story suddenly melts away, and we find ourselves thrust into an entirely new narrative with many more people involved, but still in this same cabin by the lake.
Black Bear is a horror film, and the director communicates that through the tone he sets in the first part. The music, the cinematography all work to build tension. This isn’t a horror film where monsters will show up, or people will get murdered. It’s deeply psychological. For me, this type of horror is even more terrifying because it is about the psyche’s fragility, and the more intimate we become, the more chance there always is of being torn apart. The second half’s events feel almost apocalyptic when they reach their conclusion; we never see any place outside of this property, so it’s easy to believe the world outside is gone, and just these few people remain.
The film is almost Lynchian in its exploration of identity the crumbling of that aspect of a person. Identity is tied to an occupation. Gabe is called a “former musician” by his wife, which he snaps back he still is, that you never stop being that. Allison talks about being an actress who quit because she was labeled as difficult but now frames herself as a writer-director. There aren’t many credits for her to share, and she seems to be stuck in writer’s block. If you don’t produce anything that is exhibited to the public, are you still a filmmaker? In the second half of the film, the line between reality and fiction blurs even further. We watch an actress lose herself in a cuckolded wife’s role while people on the set manipulate her to get a better performance. The movie never offers clear answers about these ideas; it plays with them and challenges us to contemplate the labels we use to name ourselves and how we know those labels are right.
Mixed within this horror story are some great moments of comedy. Black Bear is a hard movie to pin down with genres, but it definitely dips its toes in both horror & comedy and being all out metafiction. The supporting cast in the second half is pitch-perfect and helps create the air of chaotic creativity you would expect in that situation. The first half of the movie is shot with a very smooth camera, intentionally framed shots. The second half is all handheld giving it a sense of spontaneity. We’re not sure what will happen next, but there’s a knot tighten in our stomachs.
Going even deeper, Black Bear is about the anxieties that lie under the surface. It examines how we interact with unfamiliar people in social settings and how we communicate with those we become intimate with. People say things that aren’t true, later admitting it was a total lie and not knowing why they said it. Relationships ebb and flow, with those involved feeling confused so often about what is going on. Even the most innocuous of compliments or off the cuff remarks hold weight. Black Bear is an incredibly well-acted piece of social horror that will linger with you.