Bark Scrapes Up a Tense Film With a Vibrant Background [Fantastic Fest ’23]

Bark still of Nolan (Michael Weston) tied to a tree with the Outdoorsman (A.J. Buckley) squatting in front of him.

Playing at Fantastic Fest, Bark crafts a tense story and atmosphere with two men in a forest. One free and the other bound to a tree, the film is a guessing game of who, what, and why. While it’s a tense film, a lightness belies the situation. Perhaps it’s the vast open space of the forest, but it’s easy to forget the stakes for a while. But then the beauty takes on a sinister quality. With a surprising twist that will leave folks debating, Bark provides a new commentary and exploration of the supposed “nice guy.”

Directed by Mark Schölermann and written by Steve Fauquier, the movie starts with a man, Nolan Bentley (Michael Weston), waking to find himself in the forest. In addition, he’s bound—arms behind him—to a tree with no other person in sight. As hunger and thirst build, Nolan begins hallucinating various scenarios. Soon, another man, an outdoorsman (A.J. Buckley), arrives. He pitches his tent near Nolan. Yet, he refuses to free him. Bark raises the same questions other films have but gives a surprising answer. 

Bark Revels in Mind Games

Both men are strangers to the audience. The situation thrust them and viewers into the unknown. All they know about Nolan is that he is tied to a tree and scared. He hallucinates various things, including environmentalists, before the Outdoorsman shows up. Before that, an Indigenous man (Crazy Horse) offers him bark, and then he is gone. But Nolan’s running out of time, and when the Outdoorsman arrives, he tries to figure out why the man won’t free him. 

Michael Weston and A.J. Buckley have a chemistry that keeps audiences guessing what is happening. Like other films, Bark unmasks the nice guy persona many men present to the world. Often, it hides a toxic, abusive predator underneath its plain exterior. Nolan tries to get the upper hand on the Outdoorsman by trying to find something personal about him to needle. Another recent film that masterfully builds tension while audiences discern whether the main character deserves karmic punishment is #Manhole. While no one is perfect, the question is whether Nolan did something so wrong it warrants his current state. 

The Reveal Will Leave Some Torn

Bark still of Nolan (Michael Weston) tied to a tree with the Outdoorsman (A.J. Buckley) squatting in front of him.
Bark 2023 still. Fantastic Fest ’23.

As stories shift heading into the climax, and the Outdoorsman ensures no one happens upon Nolan, tidbits come out. In life, no one is innocent. People, whether intentional or not, always harm someone else. But It will be up to each moviegoer to decide whether tying Nolan to the tree is justice or retribution. Personally, I’m on board with the ending. I abhor a few things at the level, but the reveal is one of them. Others might consider this an exaggerated response. 

Bark is a tense but slow psychological buildup that reveals the stakes at the outset. Then, it leaves audiences debating whether to feel sympathetic or relieved at the lead’s situation. The climax surprises with an unexpected answer. While the dialogue could sometimes be more compelling, Bark crafts a strained atmosphere with the bare minimum of two enigmatic leads and a lush forest backdrop.

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