Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Review: 24 Exposures
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.
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.
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."
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.