Aubrey Plaza stars in another role that helps carve out her niche as a brooding, moody weirdo (in the best possible way). Black Bear‘s trailer markets it as an almost intruder-thriller, except the intruder is happily invited into the central couple’s home and the thrills are psychological. However, this is a guise for a film with various masks to unpeel.

The initial setup is straightforward: Allison (Plaza) arrives at a rural ranch for an artistic getaway; she is a film director looking to refresh and feel inspired for a new project. The couple, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gaddon), who own the house are also young creatives and the tension in their relationship becomes apparent quickly. In fact, by the second scene the friction is excruciating. Each character disagrees with literally everything the other says, so much so that the dialogue becomes predictable (“No it isn’t”, “I didn’t say that” etc.). Almost inevitably it feels, Gabe is tantalised by Allison’s free, mysterious nature and a sexual frisson ensues.

However, this is where the real nucleus of the film shines. As the narrative builds to a violent climax, we cut to black and ‘Part 2’ begins. Essentially, the audience is thrown back in time to an earlier shot, almost like a rewind, and the film begins all over again, with the three central players adopting new personas. The storyline is refreshed and Allison is now an alcoholic film ingenue while troubled couple Gabe and Blair are no more, recast as a wimpy director and scheming actress respectively. The remainder of the film unfolds in an entirely new manner, with only subtle connections to the opening Act.

Interpretations of the meaning behind the film’s format could be endless and it’s bound to invite answerless debate – concerning both its purpose and effectiveness. However, what is certain is that Plaza’s central performance (in both ‘roles’) is outstanding. Yes, she plays with her trademark sarcasm and stoicism, but then achieves so much more. In the film’s second Act particularly, she plays Allison as wild, unhinged, and devastated, echoing stellar out-of-control performances from Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jessica Lange. She holds the film together and truly surprises in such a dramatic role (compared to her comedy roots).

Black Bear is ultimately confusing. Its half-and-half structure doesn’t really reward the audience and it seems like we’re watching two drafts of a film being rehearsed – perhaps that’s the aim. However, it does hold attention thanks to Plaza’s magnetism in the central role(s) of Allison. In fact, she’s so good, it feels like she’s been wasted on a half-baked script.

Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2021