Of the many torture devices of the Dark Ages, few measure up to the Iron Maiden. The coffin-like structure is filled with long, pointed iron rods that, as the coffin closes, slowly and cruelly penetrate the victim inside. The device is sadistic, barbaric, a vile and unthinkable way to die. And yet, for all its evil, I can’t name a single person who wouldn’t choose it over hanging out with a fighting couple.
I mean, what do you do in that situation? Do you try to calm them down? Do you ignore it until it dies away? It’s a painfully awkward, frightfully common experience for so many people who have friends that are dating, and it’s a type of cringe that’s hard to capture on-screen. Unless, of course, you’re Black Bear, a movie that does nothing less than weaponize that exact feeling.
Black Bear, one of the films that streamed at last weeks’ Nightstream Film Festival, doesn’t follow one plot but two. In the first half of the movie, we follow Allison (Aubrey Plaza), an ex-actor-turned-director who’s trying to beat a case of writer’s block by escaping to a large estate in the heart of a dense forest. There, Allison meets Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), a thoroughly unhappy couple who fight constantly, completely oblivious to their guest. When Blair begins to suspect something is going on between Gabe and Allison, the already tense situation gets even worse, forcing the movie from relationship drama to downright thriller in a manner of moments.
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Then, in a surreal, Kafka-esque twist, we switch to a second storyline, one that feels like a reinterpretation of the first half. Now, Allison and Gabe are a married couple making a movie very similar to what we just watched, but with Allison as the distraught wife. Gabe directs the whole thing, and in a cruel effort to get a great performance out of Allison, tries to convince her that he’s sleeping with the film’s other star, who is, you guessed it, Blair. Allison and Gabe‘s fights in front of the cast and crew are still cringey, but with a decidedly more sinister bent. Rather than presenting a toxic couple trade barbs, the second half of the film is about one person devaluing another for “creativity’s sake.” Like a highway pile-up, it is horrible to see and impossible to look away from.
“Typically, a relationship drama wouldn’t be a film you’d see reviewed here, [but] Black Bear will give you a horror experience.“
While this movie’s structure is admittedly very uncommon, its uniqueness doesn’t take the viewer out of the experience at all. Part of that is the film’s setting, the aforementioned remote estate in a dense forest. Befitting a film called Black Bear, director Lawrence Michael Levine squeezes every ounce of natural beauty from the environment in which it was shot. As a viewer, you can almost feel the mist on your skin during the scenes where Allison goes for swims in the grey dawn, or the chill of the wind through the trees as she gazes into them after dark. Watching Black Bear feels like a walk in the woods, besides being infinitely less relaxing.
However, it’s the spectacular performances from the three leads that really keep the audience invested. From the second Sarah Gadon appears as the first Blair, you know exactly who her character is, and she keeps that performance up seamlessly. That is, until the second half, in which she radically changes personalities, but plays the character so well you know exactly what to expect upon meeting her again. Then there’s Christopher Abbot as Gabe, who you will probably hate by the end of this movie. Of course, that’s not meant to be an insult at all. Abbott portrays the asshole so well that he elicits an actual feeling of anger from the viewer. It’s a credit to his talent, albeit probably a hit to his popularity.
Standing out even amongst these stellar performances is the film’s lead, Aubrey Plaza. Fans of the actor will no doubt be pleased by her sarcastic, dry, rebellious performance as the first Allison, but it’s in the second half of the film that Plaza really shines. As the second Allison, Plaza plays a person just on the edge of insanity. As her husband drives her deeper into paranoia with his head games, Allison decides to get back at him by drinking herself into oblivion. It is a terrifying spiral to watch, a performance that will rip out your heart and have you at the edge of your seat at the same time. If it’s not Oscar-worthy then, reader, I have no idea what is.
Typically, a relationship drama wouldn’t be a film you’d see reviewed here at Nightmare on Film Street. After all, it’s completely absent of any genre elements. But believe me when I say this: Black Bear will give you a horror experience. You’ll grip the edge of your seat until your knuckles turn white. You’ll fear for the main character as though Michael Myers himself is after her. And once it’s over, this movie will haunt you for days to come. Honestly, this film made me reconsider whether cringe isn’t itself a kind of fear. It makes sense if you think about it; the dread you feel to be in a situation where your coupled friends are fighting is very similar to the dread you feel to be in a more physically dangerous one. Perhaps cringe has actually been a form of horror all long.
Hell, maybe it’s worse.
“Like a highway pile-up, it is horrible to see and impossible to look away from […] Perhaps cringe has actually been a form of horror all long.”
Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear screened as part of the 2020 Nightstream Film Festival. Click HERE to see all our coverage of the fest, and get in touch with the Nightmare on Film Street fam over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the horror movie fiend club on Facebook! For more horror straight to your inbox, be sure to join the Neighbourhood Watch!