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"Black Bear" (2020) Review: An Uroboros Tale of Ambiguity

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

The official theatrical poster for "Black Bear."

The official theatrical poster for "Black Bear."

The Silent Bear Bites The Loudest

Written, directed, and partially produced by Lawrence Michael Levine, Black Bear is classified as a comedy-drama thriller, but is so unusual that it doesn’t really classify as any genre other than experimental.

Split into two parts, Black Bear is like a puzzle that is able to be pieced together in two different ways. The pieces are similar and the end result is mostly the same, but the overall process of getting from the start to the finish is different overall. If that sounds confusing, then that’s kind of the point.

The film begins as Part One: The Bear in the Road with an independent filmmaker named Allison (Aubrey Plaza) going to a rural remote retreat. It’s a peaceful retreat secluded from the big city with a fog-covered lake surrounded by incredible forests.

Allison has hit writer’s block and needs to get away to find inspiration. The retreat belongs to a couple, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) on the verge of having a baby, but who adamantly point out that they aren’t married. Things begin as pleasant at first with Gabe and Blair being fans of Allison’s film work, but Allison and Gabe begin to bond in a way that makes Blair suspicious.

Part Two: The Bear By the Boat House takes place at the same house at the same retreat. The main cast has the same names, but their characters are different. Allison is now the wife of Gabe while shooting his latest film. Gabe plays head games with Allison to get the best performance out of her. Another actress in the film, Blair, pretends to be having an affair with Gabe to push Allison to the brink of insanity.

Aubrey Plaza as Allison.

Aubrey Plaza as Allison.

The summary of Black Bear mentions that “…the woods summon [Allison’s] inner demons in intense and surprising ways.” There’s a sequence that is shown repeatedly throughout Black Bear to portray Allison’s thought process. She goes down to the dock in a red bikini and sits on a striped blanket while staring out into the water completely blanketed in fog. She stares for a moment, gets up, picks up her towel, and then leaves. She goes back to her room and writes.

It’s difficult to analyze Black Bear as a traditional film since it’s so unconventional. The film seems to play out as the scenarios in Allison’s head serve as inspirations for her next film, but is ambiguous enough to be taken literally. Both parts of the film generally end with the arrival of a black bear potentially on the verge of killing everyone. This shouldn’t be considered as a spoiler because each part seems to abruptly end as soon as the bear appears.

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Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon as Gabe and Blair.

Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon as Gabe and Blair.

The dialogue mostly feels like drunken or hallucinogenic-inspired rambling that almost seems entirely improvised. The main conversation between Allison, Blair, and Gabe in the first part is, “the most important scene” that is shot on the final day of shooting in the second part. The film is an intriguing look at the behind-the-scenes of what takes place on a film production, especially if one of your main stars is troublesome in any capacity. But it also seems to be a commentary on human nature like a bear attack isn’t nearly as gruesome as human desire.

There seems to be an emphasis on pretending to be someone you’re not in Black Bear. Allison downright lies about herself in the first part of the film and pretends to play a different character in the second part. Gabe and Blair appear to be a happy couple in part one and pretend to be having an affair in part two. You never get that nasty, bone-crunching bear-on-human interaction that you’d expect from something like The Revenant here because the things these human animals put each other through are way more animalistic and savage.

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott as Allison and Gabe.

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott as Allison and Gabe.

Black Bear isn’t necessarily an entertaining or enjoyable experience, but it’s the type of film that is intriguing to analyze and has some rather strong performances from the three leads. You sympathize with Allison in part two and Aubrey Plaza is mesmerizing as her character’s mind and heart literally crumble away right before your eyes.

This is the type of film that is open to interpretation and purposely doesn’t explain everything. It’s frustrating in a sense, but it’s also what makes the film unique. If it embeds itself in your brain deep enough, it may be worth multiple viewings. Lawrence Michael Levine knows how to baffle the audience, but there doesn’t seem to be enough depth here for Black Bear to be memorable or totally worthwhile.

Aubrey Plaza as Allison in, "Black Bear."

Aubrey Plaza as Allison in, "Black Bear."

© 2020 Chris Sawin


Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on December 11, 2020:

It is and it isn't. It's hard to explain until you see it for yourself. It seems to also be about how mean spirited people can be and that human nature can bite harder than a wild bear. I admire what the film went for, but don't really think it worked overall.

Fin from Barstow on December 10, 2020:

curious about this film. looks like a movie about making movies. interesting cast.

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