Bark (Fantastic Fest 2023)
Dir. Marc Schölermann (2023)
A man awakens to find himself tied to a tree in the woods. When a stranger comes and sets up camp nearby, he quickly realizes that the stranger has no intention of setting him free.
The woods fucking suck. Yeah, I know, nature is awesome and everything. But for real, the woods fucking suck. They're dirty, completely not climate controlled, and sometimes, if you're particularly unlucky, you'll find yourself tied to a tree with no one around to save you. Such was the fate of Nolan Bentley (Michael Weston), strapped down to a large piece of timber by himself with just the glories of nature and obnoxious wildlife sounds to keep him company. His loneliness will be short-lived, however, as soon The Outdoorsman (A. J. Buckley) comes by to set up camp right next to him, potentially offering him salvation from his plight. But of course, it wouldn't be much of a movie if that's all there was to it. Nolan quickly learns that The Outdoorsman has no interest in setting him free, and the duo embarks on a cat-and-mouse game in which the mouse has already been caught.
In a film that is almost solely populated by two actors, it's vitally important that both perform their parts to near perfection. Thankfully, both Weston and Buckley are fantastic, two relative unknowns whose talent drips off of every frame. The philosophical nature of the game at the heart of the film's drama is enthralling, and despite what should be a boring plot, the script is phenomenally well put together and the actors do a great job of maintaining the audience's attention throughout. It's literally just two guys talking in the woods, but the power dynamic and the mystery as to why Bentley is tied to the tree are enough to make the film worthwhile.
It's a brutal premise for a film, but director Marc Schölermann smartly leaves it largely bloodless. It is essentially a character drama, a stage play that just so happens to take place in a forest. The psychological game being played between the two men is fascinating, torture in a way that horror rarely explores. Not much can really be discussed as to the meaning behind the drama at the center of the film without spoiling the ending, but it's heartbreaking and enraging all at once.
Films like this are hit or miss, to be sure. It's exceptionally difficult to pull off such an insular film, a movie with such a tiny scope and so narrowly focused. Schölermann pulls it off in spades with the help of Weston, Buckley, and writer Steve Fauquier's taut and excellent script. It's a film that, quite frankly, left me speechless, easily the best film from Fantastic Fest that I've watched so far. A truly outstanding indie psychological thriller that may well wind up on my Best of 2023 list before it's all said and done. If you get a chance to check this one out, I highly recommend it.
Who this movie is for: Psychological thriller aficionados, Isolationist horror lovers, Campers
Bottom line: It's so incredibly difficult to pull a film like this off, but everything about this film works. The actors are phenomenal, the writing is near perfect, and Schölermann does a magnificent job with this man-in-the-woods psychological thriller. It's heartbreaking, poignant, and utterly terrifying at the same time, threatening a terrible fate that may not be undeserved. The recent premiere at Fantastic Fest bodes well for distribution, and I sincerely hope that this film is able to find a wider audience. Hopefully you'll be able to enjoy it as much as I did.