Black Bear Explained: The Lake, The House, The Bear

Premiered at Sundance earlier in the year, Black Bear is an uneven, unnerving thriller with Aubrey Plaza in the role of a lifetime.

The Parks and Rec star is protagonist Allison, an actress-turned-director looking for inspiration at a cabin lake in the Adirondack Mountains. As Allison enjoys the tranquility of this new setting, she upends the lives of her hosts Gabe (Possessor actor Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). 

An exciting addition to their quiet family life, Allison masters the deadpan Plaza is known for. The character lies her way into the couple’s life to uncover the dirt beneath the perfect surface. Prompted by Allison’s manipulative games, the pair engages in an increasingly uncomfortable banter with tragic consequences.

When the audience seems to have the movie by Lawrence Micheal Levine all figured out, the tone shifts completely. Black Bear is an undecipherable nightmare. It plays with symbols and tropes, blurring the lines between what’s real and what isn’t. And isn’t this what moviemaking is all about, after all? While the first act, “The Bear in the Road,” relies on witty, at times brutal dialogue like a theater play, the second part is a love/hate letter to independent filmmaking. Levine has been in the industry for over fifteen years, together with his filmmaker wife, Sophia Takal, and this experience is on display especially in the second act.

The second act, called” The Bear by the Boat House,” takes place on a movie set. The lake house is now the main location for Gabe’s movie, starring Blair and Allison, his wife. And this is where Black Bear messes with the audience’s notions of linearity.

The Lake, The Swimsuit, The Notebook

Black Bear opens with a shot of Plaza viewers are bound to become familiar with. In a red swimsuit, Allison sits on a wooden pier, contemplating the foggy lake extending in front of her eyes. 

When she goes back inside the house, she scribbles something on a notebook. It is not clear whether this is her screenwriting journal or a personal journal, but it works seamlessly as a stylish trick to introduce the title card for the first act. Apart from her swimsuit, the only other splash of color in an otherwise fairly neutral wooden palette is the red chair she sits on. An omen of the bloody ending of this first half, perhaps.

“The Bear in the Road” sees Allison arriving at Gabe and Blair’s property. The pièce de résistance is a 14-page scripted dinner scene, fostering great turns from the three protagonists. 

The exchange between Blair and Gabe is every bit as gripping as it is painful to watch. Pregnant, Blair indulges in multiple glasses of red wine, chastised by Gabe. Admonishing his partner for drinking too much feels like an outlet to vent his frustrations. A professional musician, Gabe is visibly unhappy with the life he and Blair have been making for themselves, leaving Brooklyn and its exciting artistic opportunities behind. In turns, Blair calls out Gabe on his anti-feminist views. The two are seemingly putting up a show to entertain their guest, unbeknownst that Allison is the one pushing them to get a reaction. She is directing.

Spotting The Black Bear

This first part constantly redefines what love, commitment, and making art mean. Allison opens up on her writing process, saying film is the only way she knows to convey what she has to say. The filmmaker looks and sounds bashful and uninterested, but she is dying for praise and validation from the couple. 

Allison and Blair couldn’t be more different, giving viewers echoes of the protagonists in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Black Bear offers that same dreamlike, suspended atmosphere where it’s hard to predict what could happen next.

Allison fascinates both Blair and Gabe. While the former wants to pick her brain about her artistic process, the latter experiences attraction in a more visceral, physical way. The sexual tension becomes apparent to Blair, who threatens to leave Gabe. The man suggests his partner is projecting and imagining things that aren’t there, but later confirms her suspicions by sleeping with Allison.

The pregnant woman sees Gabe and their guest together and confronts them. She attacks Gabe with a Buddha statue and is manhandled, then realizing she is bleeding and might be having a miscarriage. Gabe growls at a petrified Allison to get the keys to the truck. As they rush to the hospital, the protagonist spots the titular black bear. The sighting causes Allison to suddenly steer the wheel and crash against a tree. The audience is left in the dark about the characters’ fate.

Does Black Bear Hint At The Existence Of A Multiverse?

The lake scene plays in the opening of the second act, “The Bear by the Boat House.” Except Allison isn’t contemplating nature for herself; she is now the protagonist of a movie. Directed by her husband Gabe and also starring talented actress Blair, this independent film, too, is called Black Bear

Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon in “Black Bear.” Courtesy of Tandem Pictures

The second half is a meta, multi-layered incursion into a film set. Gabe and his crew are shooting one of the most demanding scenes in the project. This is none other than a reenactment of the unsettling dinner of the first act, with Allison and Blair trading places.

There are different hypotheses as to whether the second act is connected to the first at all. While the first half of Black Bear could be set before or after the events of the first, it could also take place in an alternate universe. In this timeline, the characters are simply different versions of themselves compared to those in the first act.

As the characters go by the same names, the power dynamics have completely shifted. Allison, who claims to have a husband in the first part, is now married to Gabe. The director tries to get a genuine reaction from her by leading her to believe he’s having an affair with Blair. He psychologically abuses Allison for art’s sake, pushing the actress to the edge to get a show-stopping delivery. The drunk protagonist gives an honest, incredible performance in the scene where she acts opposite Blair’s character, as well as an actor who’s clearly a proxy for Gabe.

After wrapping the movie, Allison is completely drained. When Gabe reveals he hasn’t been sleeping with Blair and even jokes about it, his wife is unbothered by the fact he has lied to her. She feels relieved. 

The Bear Returns

Despite possibly featuring different characters, the second act ends with Gabe sleeping with Blair and Allison seeing them from behind a window. Unlike Blair in the first act, however, the cheated-on woman doesn’t go in. Allison chooses not to confront Gabe as she’s interrupted by a black bear, rustling the leaves by the boat house. Allison stares at the animal, forming a connection. She smiles enigmatically, before walking away.

There is some uncertainty surrounding what the bear could symbolize. The animal might be a metaphor for Allison’s demons following her around. This impression is reinforced by the fact that she hears leave-rustling noises throughout the movie as she’s exploring the house surroundings. 

There’s no assurance that the bear is real and not a figment of her imagination. It could even act as a stand-in for Allison herself. Black bears are capable of killing a human being, but they tend to avoid confrontation. Similarly, the woman decides to leave upon spotting Gabe having sex with Blair.

Additionally, by using “bear” as a pet name to refer to Gabe, Second-Act Allison might be confirming she is in a toxic, unbalanced relationship. She’s under his influence. Or perhaps, she’s under the spell of moviemaking, a compelling, potentially destructive force destined to maul those who aspire to make a living out of it.

“Do you remember what it was like in the beginning?”

“Before all the movies?”

Allison in Black Bear

It doesn’t last long; Allison is aware that her creative urge is too intense to just let go.

“I still love you, Bear,” she stares into the void as Gabe is spooning her. The character might be talking to him, but also referring to her consuming love of film.

That Final Stare Into The Camera

The epilogue returns to the hazy lake for the very last time. The camera follows Allison as she stares into the distance, gets up, and makes for the cabin. Again, the bright red swimsuit and chair stand out against the neutral background. As it is in the prologue, the heavy fog surrounding the lake might identify the segments as dreamlike visions.

Black Bear ends with Allison scribbling down in her notebook, before staring right into the camera. Thanks to the final frame in which Plaza locks eyes with the audience, Allison is no longer the observed. She becomes an observing subject. A device to bring characters into existence beyond the fourth wall, staring into the camera is how the protagonist claims back her agency, alongside the act of writing. She’s finally out of her creative rut and into the woods.