It’s funny I didn’t see my first American live-action film at the VIFF until the second-last day of the Festival. Black Bear was that film. It was quite a story.
The film begins with a woman in a swimsuit out by the dock near a lake in the Adirondacks region and just meditates by the water instead of swimming. We later see that woman walking down a road in what appears to be a remote area of the woods. She has a lot of baggage. A man stops to ask if she’s lost. She says she’s an actress-turned-director names Allison. He introduces himself as Gabe. He is actually the director who will be working with Allison on an upcoming production. Allison is willing to accept Gabe’s offer to bring her luggage to the place. During the walk she reveals she chose directing because she’s hard to work with. She’s known for emotional outbursts. She hopes to spend some time at the cottage in hopes that the natural greenness with help her unblock her creativity and help her to produce her next project. They arrive at their cottage near the lake with his pregnant wife Blair waiting. Gabe tries to introduce Blair to Allison, but you can sense the jealousy in Blair’s body language, even though she tries to hide it.
During the dinner, things really get heated. Blair talks of how they moved from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks; because Brooklyn was too expensive and they were getting nowhere in the film business. Blair soon gets all confrontational with Gabe. She even gives him a hard time in front of Allison about a comment she perceives as his male chauvinisms. Allison sides with Gabe, adding more suspicious feeling from Blair. The dinner leads to more friction from Blair about Gabe and how she can’t stand the world he creates. Late at night, Gabe finds Allison alone. The two develop a good conversation. Then it leads to a lot more. It turns out Gabe has had a thing for Allison since they first met and she has a thing for Gabe too. Right while they are about to have sex, Blair physically attacks both of them. She knew it all along and she’s infuriated. She even chases Allison out, but it leads to an area in the woods where Allison is confronted by a black bear. The bear doesn’t attack Allison at all.
The film then progresses forward weeks or months later to the wrapping up of the film. The shooting is taking place around the cottage and the dock. The crew is setting up. The directors are having confrontations of how to have the next scenes shot. Gabe and Blair are cooperating well for this project. It’s possible they’ve decided mostly for the sake of the film to put all personal feelings aside. But for the last scene, Allison appears to be out of it. The calm, cool Allison from that time before is not there. She appears angered or hurting inside. However the final scenes still need to be shot.
As Allison becomes more uncooperative with the actors and crew on the set, she finds a place to withdraw herself. Problems arise all over the place. The crew have their issues of setting up and one has a severe stomach problem. The directors have an ego clash over what is to be done. Gabe and Blair have talks about the film that appear to be more about their relationship, or fading relationship. The actors squabble with each other. However it’s Allison who’s the biggest of the problems. She’s just become an emotional time-bomb. It’s unclear why she’s that way but any attempt from anyone to get her to work properly on the scene, especially from Gabe, only succeeds in making her even more confrontational. Eventually she does agree to the scene, but it appears things could go better. After the shootings done, she leaves the cottage where she comes across the bear again. Again the bear doesn’t attack and Allison smiles for the first time today.
This is an interesting story about a bizarre love triangle and how it intermingles with film. An actress who wants to venture into film decides to meet with the director of her next film. She makes the way into the house and the wife suspects something. Everything falls apart from that point on. Blair starts friction with Gabe while Allison appears to coax him. It results in an affair that drives Blair angry. Three weeks later, work on the film happens and Allison can’t take it anymore. She becomes an emotional timebomb. You’re left wondering why? She said at the beginning of the film she was confrontational on the set. Is that the reason why Allison is acting like a time bomb? Or could it be she still has feelings for Gabe? Or is something deeper than that? Even of a natural sense? You’re left to wonder.
Despite how interesting the story is, it does get confusing. The first story appears to set up for the second story. I can understand how films don’t try to reveal everything mainly so the audience can make their own decisions, but there’s still too much that’s unclear. One of the things that’s unclear is whether the marriage between Gabe and Blair ended. They get along better while shooting. You’re left to wonder did they patch things up or did they split and are now getting along better? Another is Allison. I know I mentioned how Allison’s behavior on the final day of shooting get you wondering. If you saw the scene yourself, you yourself would find it hard to decide the biggest reason why she’s acting that way. Also confusing is the role of the bear in the film. The film’s two scenes are titled Part One: The Bear On The Road and the second scene is Part Two: The Bear By The Boat House, but you don’t see the black bear until the very end. The bear doesn’t attack Allison in either scene and the appearance of the bear causes Allison to smile at the end. You’re left to wonder what’s the symbolism of the bear? Allison coming to grips with her mentality? Her tranquility with nature finally reached? You’re left wondering.
Despite the confusing story, this is an ambitious film from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. This is the sixth film and third feature-length film he writes and directs and the first of his films he doesn’t act in. The film is impressive that it is a psychological film about human nature and how personal problems, especially among people in the arts, cause the friction, but its imperfections are noticeable. The best work from the film comes from the actress Aubrey Plaza. She goes from an actress who doesn’t appear to be the type to call a time-bomb at first to one who fits the description of ‘time-bomb’ perfectly. Her transformation was excellent because she was portraying two different Allisons and it worked excellently. Christopher Abbott was also good as Gabe: the director left confused in all of this. Sarah Gadon was excellent with portraying Blair as one who does not shy away from letting her personal feelings show. Additional technical efforts that highlight the film are the cinematography of Robert Leitzell, the cinematic score of Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary, and the images of pencil and paper of going from scene to scene and the end credits.
Black Bear hasn’t won too many awards on the film festival circuit. It was a nominee for a NEXT Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival and a New Vision Award at the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival. Nevertheless those who saw it have talked a lot about it and its story and it has become a major attraction at film festivals.
Black Bear does make for a drama about a bizarre love triangle. It’s a story of the affair and the aftermath. The problem is there’s too much in the film that is unclear, including the inclusion of the bear.
DISCLAIMER: VIFF 2019 has ended, but I will continue to post reviews of the films I’ve seen as many will be released in theatres later this year or next year.
At first you’ll think I saw The Death Of Dick Long because of the title. In actual fact, I’ve heard so many lewd jokes in my life, I’m no longer charmed by it. I’m actually more bored with lewd humor. As for the film, I found the film to be funny in a bizarre and dark sort of way.
The film begins with Dick Long playing in his band Pink Freud with his bandmates Zeke Olson and Earl. The night consists of playing and partying, especially with fireworks. However overnight, Zeke and Earl leave a severely-wounded Dick by the entrance of the emergency room of a hospital and take his wallet for the sake of ‘anonymity.’ It’s now up to Earl and Zeke to hide everything.
Earl loads up his truck with several items. He tells his casual girlfriend Lake that he’s leaving for a family emergency, but goes to work. Zeke showers to get all the blood off him and lies down next to his wife Lydia to think he slept the whole night with her. Upon waking up, Lydia asks Zeke to drive their daughter Cynthia to school. When she asks for cash, he accidentally pulls out Dick’s wallet . He gives her cash, but puts Dick’s driver’s license on the counter. Before he takes the daughter to school, he sees Dick’s blood from last night on the backseat. He covers it with a sheet to make like nothing’s happening.
Over at the hospital, Dr. Richter, the doctor who discovered Dick at the door, has learned that Dick has died overnight. He notices that his wounds are severe anal wounds and he calls the police over it. The case is handled and investigated by Sherriff Spenser, a vet in the town police department, and she enlists her young inexperienced trainee Officer Dudley to help solve the death.
However Zeke and Earl learn you can’t keep things secret for long. Zeke drives Cynthia to school, but stops to fill the car up with gas. Cynthia leaves the car to go the store and talks with Officer Dudley. Zeke notices Dick’s blood soaked through the cloth and onto Cynthia’s dress. Zeke then rushes in to take Cynthia without Dudley seeing and gives her the wallet.
Before dropping Cynthia off, he makes a call to Earl to see him immediately. Earl has to be away from his girlfriend Lake for the day. The two scrub all the blood off the seat from the car while Cynthia is bathing. Earl offers to drive Cynthia to school and then calls Dick’s widow Jane to see if she knows anything. She knows nothing and thinks Dick is either missing or just away for a long time. This allows Earl and Zeke to fake a scenario that the car was stolen. They try dumping it in the river, but the river is too shallow and it only falls in halfway.
Sherriff Spenser and Officer Dudley get into the case, which they assume it to be a murder, but are unable to keep it a secret from the rest of the town. Word hits Lydia and she calls Zeke in fear of her life. Zeke insists the car is stolen, but he still has to meet with the police. Spenser and Dudley arrive at his house to ask him the questions. The questioning is to be brief as forensics have turned up some positive results. However Cynthia’s in the room. Whenever Zeke tells a lie, Cynthia is the first to point it out and to correct. Lydia is there hearing it all. Lydia tells Cynthia to watch television as she tries to get to the bottom with Zeke about his inconsistencies and demands the truth. Zeke confesses the truth of Dick’s death, by breaking down. Lydia is heartbroken. However Lydia is soon horrified when she learns of the shocking details of Dick’s death and demands that Zeke leave.
Zeke meets up with Earl in a bar and the two resolve that they won’t run away. However there’s a need for tactics as they learn Spenser and Dudley will be heading over to the Olsons for further questioning and then to Jane’s house to tell the news of what happened to Dick. Zeke rushes over to Jane’s house and she finds him in the stable drunk and shirtless. Zeke reassures Jane that Dick’s not having an affair and agrees to take her to his house. There, Officer Dudley and Lydia are there demanding answers. Dudley even just noticed the drivers license of Richard Long on the counter. Zeke agrees to do so with Lydia and Dudley sitting at the dinner table. The various conflicting stories of Zeke and Lydia spiral out of control with Zeke running out with Dudley chasing after him. Lydia is the one to break the news to Jane. Meanwhile Zeke is at Dick’s stable attempting to free Dick’s horse Comet before he will surrender himself to Dudley.
The final scene shows the aftermath. The big shocker to Dudley from Spenser is that Zeke has been released, feeling keeping him incarcerated before the trial would cause more harm than good to Lydia, Cynthia and Jane. Zeke may be a released man before the trial, but he still tries to maintain a closeness with Cynthia despite Lydia wanting him out of their lives. Even Jane’s life is not the same. The film ends with Zeke meeting up at a hotel room with Earl and Lake. The two talk about what the next plan is for all three to survive the aftermath of all this.
This film is an ambitious attempt at a crime comedy. You have a man left for dead at a hospital and you wonder what’s going on. You have the two trying to cover it up and hide from the law, but fail in a spectacularly hilarious way. You have law enforcers that are two opposites– one experienced and relaxed and the other inexperienced and both excited but nervous– at getting the job done. It tries to do it in a slow-but-steady manner. It’s not the most entertaining, but it does it well and will keep your intrigue. Mind you the story of Dick’s death will keep you intrigued, if not weirded out. The whole story leaves you wondering from the very start what’s the main motive of the cover up? Is it their involvement in his death? Or is it because of Dick’s humiliating death? It is bizarre.
Now the redneck stereotype is one people often get a laugh out of. However there are many times in entertainment where the redneck stereotype is often reduced to cartoonish or stock characters. Here, the characters are more three-dimensional. Yes, they have their idiotic moments and comedic moments common with the ‘redneck’ we’re familiar with, but they are more down-to-earth and have more dimension. They come across as common people. One thing that’s surprising is you see a multi-racial couple. Usually redneck couples are nothing but white.
The rednecks aren’t the only characters with more dimension in this film. The police force whose lack of intellect doesn’t come across like your typical stocky ‘dumb cop.’ They are dim-witted, but they don’t cross the line as cartoonish either.
Finally another difference from your typical redneck comedy is the ending is very much in sync with human feelings. The story is about a hilarious way of covering up a friend’s humiliating death and failing, but the human factor is there at the very end. Zeke may have failed in spectacular fashion, but he still knows he has to deal with a daughter he loves very much and a wife who turns against him that faithful night. We have Jane, Dick’s widow, trying to live her life, but it’s hard. Everything changed that night. The film ends Earl and Lake: the two people in the world that understand Zeke and what happened that night best. I think the ending is what best made the film work in being a redneck comedy with actual dimension.
The film is directed well by Daniel Scheinert. He’s the director best known for Swiss Army Man. Here he doesn’t shine as a director, but he does piece together the story by Billy Chew in a way that works. The acting also made the story work. Janelle Cochran and Sarah Baker were good at playing their roles of the two officers with different personalities and different approaches. Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland were good at playing Zeke and Earl. They did a good job of playing rednecks that had dimension instead of coming off as cartoonish. Virginia Newcomb and Jess Weixler were also good as playing the redneck wives who did lack some smarts at first, but would appear headstrong but hurt in the end.
The Death Of Dick Long is a humorous redneck crime story that is able to make a comedy out of a manslaughter incident, but doesn’t forget the human factor either. This is the least cartoonish ‘redneck comedy’ I’ve seen, and it works.