There’s the adage of not judging a book by its cover, and not letting our preconceived notions of something color our ultimate opinion of someone or something. Morever, when it comes to the consuming of art, it’s important to not let what we think is going on let us come to believe we know what is going on.
Bark is the story of Nolan Bentley, an apparently normal Everyman who one day wakes up in the middle of the forest with his hands tied behind his back and around a tree. Escape is impossible, so Nolan begins screaming for help and desperately hoping someone comes along to find him. After a few days of starvation, hallucination, and all around unpleasantry, Nolan is surprised to see a hiker has set up camp next to him. However, he soon realizes that the man has no intention of releasing him and seems hellbent on teaching him a lesson, and from there the film spirals into an exercise in weaponized sympathy, misdirect, morality, self-reflection, and a direct reversal of one of the cheapest tropes in filmmaking.
This is an incredibly tense film, one that despite taking place entirely outdoors feels intensely claustrophobic. The cinematography goes a long way not just to show how isolated the setting is but also how limited Nolan is in his movements. There are times when the camera is tight on actor Michael Weston as he struggles against the bondage he’s been put in that the weight of the isolation presses against you, especially some of the scenes at night. Director Marc Scholermann knows exactly how to force the viewer into Nolan’s shoes, making us deeply sympathetic to his situation. There are times when the camerawork is reminiscent of Sam Raimi, giving it a creepy voyeuristic feeling.
At first glance this is a film with a woefully simple premise that could’ve gone the way of Saw and just very easily fallen into the trap of ‘cruelty for cruelty’s sake’/torture porn-style violence. But it’s important to note the film never leers at Nolan’s situation. There is no Fulci-esque shoving of the viewers’ nose into the violence of it. It feels like close meandering at times, and you will be wondering where the film is going. But somehow, even in hindsight and knowing how it ends, it never feels pointless, and while you may wonder where the film is going there is never a doubt that it is going somewhere.
The acting in this film is what puts it over the top. Michael Weston as the luckless Nolan is perfect, selling us on a character who is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of chaotic circumstances that he can’t fathom. He is simply pathetic, a man suffering for no real reason beyond the cruelty of another. A.J. Buckley as the Outdoorsman is the exact opposite, a simmering cauldron of a man bristling with barely concealed contempt for our protagonist. Buckley gives his character a palpable but restrained rage, oftentimes on the verge of literally spitting out his rebuttals to Nolan’s pleading. The way he addresses Nolan is chilling, more like a parent chiding an unruly child than a man seemingly unbothered at the possibility of leaving another man to die tied to a tree in the wilderness. But, the true genius of Buckley’s acting lies in the climax, which turns the prior 80 minutes into something of a smorgasbord for a certain demographic of viewers. It is brutal, but it is oh so satisfying and wholly unexpected.
Bark is a cruel film, yes. For much of it we are subjected to seeing a man slowly driven to and beyond breaking point for reasons we don’t really understand. But it is also a study in how to misguide, and how easily perceptions are shaped and guided by relatively superficial details. It’s a story of how terrible people can hide amongst us and convince us they’re not terrible. It is a lesson in consequence, a brief respite of sanity in an insane world where justice is often nowhere to be found. But, most impressively, it is an exercise in how sympathy can be wielded against us to move us emotionally even further. The cast and filmmakers succeed in pulling us into this nightmare situation, and showing us these characters, and cultivating sympathy to complete a recipe that uses that sympathy like adding salt to chocolate to make the sweetness truly pop. The ending of this film will leave your jaw on the floor, and it is the use of compassion towards the vulnerable against the viewer that does the dropping.