Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: 24 Exposures

Joe Swanberg's newest movie, 24 Exposures, is the writer/director's 10th movie in three years. Holy shit.

Swanberg is a polarizing figure in the filmmaking community. To would-be indie directors, he's an inspiration -- a guy who cranks out personal movies on his own terms, even sometimes controlling the distribution. To his detractors (among them Devin Faraci once upon a time, who took his issues with Swanberg into a boxing ring at Fantastic Fest a few years ago and got knocked the fuck out), he's the Godfather of the oft-lamented "mumblecore" movement -- low-budget indies in which a bunch of friends sit around talking about their problems and navel gazing. He was, for many in the critical community, a favorite punching bag...until he started punching back. Literally. Oh, and he started making movies with stars in them.

Last summer, Swanberg stole all of his scenes in the terrific horror movie You're Next, a film directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett. Now Swanberg is the writer/director of 24 Exposures and his two lead actors are Wingard and Barrett, carrying on the tradition of musical chairs this group of filmmakers (which also includes Amy Seimetz and Ti West, among others) is playing. Wingard plays Billy, a fetish photographer who specializes in taking shots of half-naked (or fully naked) models made up to look like murder victims. While he and his girlfriend Alex (Caroline White) pick out new girls to photograph and occasionally engage in romantic trysts, a series of murders begins with victims that look a lot like the girl's in Billy's photos. That brings the attention of Michael Bamfeaux (Barrett), a heartbroken detective and frustrated writer who knows Billy from his work moonlighting as a crime scene photographer. As Billy sets his sights on a new model -- a waitress (Helen Rogers) sporting a black eye -- Bamfeaux gets drawn further in to Billy's weird world.
At its center, 24 Exposures is a murder mystery. But it's a murder mystery that no one -- not the characters, and certainly not Swanberg -- has any interest in solving. There's not much holding the plot together, which is to say that there isn't even very much plot. As a narrative, 24 Exposures isn't all that good. But I'm not sure it's even intended to function as a narrative as much as an exploration of Swanberg's process. It's no secret that he likes to put naked women in his movies, so this one goes a step further not just by having every single actress take off her clothes (the movie is almost top-to-bottom nudity) but also by telling a story about a guy who gets women naked for a living -- the methods by which he selects them, how he becomes infatuated with his subjects, the way the lines can blur between professionalism and attraction.

But Swanberg is a horror fan, too; besides acting in You're Next, he contributed one of the (better) segments to the 2012 anthology V/H/S and his 2011 film Silver Bullets takes place in the horror world. So 24 Exposures is also about the relationship between sex and violence and what draws us to each -- or, in some cases, what draws us to the combination of the two. It's a film about what the artist chooses to put in front of the camera lens and the way the medium can be stripped away to reveal different layers of fiction.

The release of 24 Exposures, coming as it does between the much more commercial Drinking Buddies and the upcoming (and very commercial) Happy Christmas makes me wonder if Swanberg is adopting a Soderberghian, "one for them, one for me" approach to moviemaking. In my heart I know that's wrong, because Swanberg has always made "one for me" movies. Like Wingard's Billy, who describes his work as "personal fetish photography" intended first and foremost for himself, Swanberg is a filmmaker unconcerned with commercial viability or mainstream success (that he is slowly in the process of finding it is a kind of happy accident). That's not to say Swanberg's films have no interest in the audience's enjoyment, only that it's clear he's an artist who satisfies himself first. You don't make as many movies as Swanberg does on the budget on which he makes them without doing it for personal, not commercial, reasons.
That question of audience enjoyment is central to 24 Exposures. What is it that we want out of "Joe Swanberg movie?" Or any movie for that matter? Nudity and sex are huge selling points in the marketplace, and Swanberg's movies are full of both. But 24 Exposures turns that around on the viewer, forcing him or her to confront just how much "enjoyment" there is to be had with the nudity on display. Is just seeing a naked female enough, or does the context matter? Here's a topless woman, but she's been made up to look like she's been beaten and tortured. She hasn't really been, of course; it's just makeup. But then that's true of any movie, even those that want us to believe that a character really has been abused and isn't just posing for a photo. Can we enjoy a scene of three-way sex when all we're really concerned with is the jealousy of the characters and possible ramifications this will have on their relationships? Swanberg presents the scene as sexy, but the context in which he places it makes it feel anything but. That's not an accident.

All of the ideas and themes brought up by 24 Exposures are what make it stick, because as a story it pretty much fizzles out. The mystery is not satisfying, the resolution (I think?) even less so. After the actor's showcase that was Drinking Buddies (in which Swanberg got career-best performances from both Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde), 24 Exposures dials the acting back to muted indie world. It's not that Wingard and Barrett are bad, it's that they're playing representations more than characters. The movie remains totally watchable throughout in pulsing, hypnotic way thanks in large part to the synthesizer score by Jasper Lee, even when the "what" is way less interesting than the "why."
So 24 Exposures doesn't quite work as a narrative. But with the rate at which Swanberg creates, I'll gladly take something like this -- a shaggy placeholder that exists for the filmmaker to work out some of his themes and obsessions, even if it is ultimately in a winkingly self-reflexive way. By the time we get to a scene in which Barrett essentially pitches the plot of the film to a literary agent -- played by Swanberg, no less -- only to be told that the mystery is half-hearted and none of the characters really connect, 24 Exposures is completely forthright in its intentions. It's reminiscent of Burn After Reading in the way that it knowingly throws up its hands.

24 Exposures is a weird little genre movie, one which seems intent on taking us to task for the reasons we turn to movies like this and paying off none of what we've come to expect -- the anti-erotic thriller. It's extremely personal and a little self-indulgent. This is Joe Swanberg's De Palma movie, simultaneously laying bare and indulging in his obsessions. As someone who likes both Swanberg and De Palma, I'm not complaining.


  1. Swanberg is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors after seeing both You're Next and Drinking Duddies in 2013, can't wait to check this one out!

  2. Adam Wingard directed You're Next.