Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writer: Joe Swanberg
Producer: Alex Orr, Alexander A. Motlagh
Stars: Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Caroline White, Sophia Takal, Helen Rogers, Mike Brune, Caitlin Stainken, Lydia Hyslop
A troubled police detective and an erotic fetish photographer cross paths when several models mysteriously turn up dead.
Remember when a tsunami of political correctness washed over North America in the 1990’s, and popular agreement unilaterally decreed that all words previously used to describe a group were offensive and must be replaced? Terms varied in their perceived insensitivity from legitimate to questionable, usually dependent upon whether the word applied to a person or to a profession. “Oriental” became “Asian.” “Midget” became “little person.” “Stewardess” became “flight attendant” while “waiter” became “server,” and so on.
The 21st century indie film equivalent of a terminology backlash came against the word “mumblecore.” Unfortunately, no suitable alternative was named, partly because many who comprise the movement insist it doesn’t exist. Label the subgenre however you want, but filmmaker Joe Swanberg’s projects often fit the bill. With that bill comprised of characteristics like a disproportionate ratio of low budget to high acting inexperience, copious amounts of organic dialogue, and heavy undercurrents of Generation Y ennui.
A more abstract way to put it would be to describe such films as feeling like the half-realized experiments of film school grad students conceived in coffee house conversations before their maverick attitudes proudly proclaimed, “forget commercialism, I’m just going to try it and see what happens.” That may sound like a dig, but it is only an observation.
Despite presumably having a script, “24 Exposures” has that arthouse aura of being a not fully premeditated film. Known for his mumblecore prolificity, writer/director Swanberg seems to have started the cameras rolling before having a complete idea, with fingers crossed that a meaningful movie would pop into place through willful force of artistry. It is a strategy that has worked before, but to less success in this case.
Swanberg’s filmmaker friend Adam Wingard plays Billy, a “personal fetish photographer” who cherry picks his live-in girlfriend’s Average Jane gal pals to model for him in various states of undress and faux gore. Fellow filmmaker friend Simon Barrett is Mike, the detective with a crumbling personal life whose path crosses Billy’s when a model turns up dead.
“24 Exposures” is less of a traditionally constructed crime thriller and more of a loose assembly of scenes snipped randomly from the average lives of the people central to its premise. These are not the same scenes that might comprise a linear storyline or a satisfactory entertainment purpose, however.
While the audience waits along with Swanberg to see if a story comes together on its own, characters occupy the time by preparing breakfast, arguing over relationship troubles, and generally going about lives where the adjective “boring” would be an improvement. Barrett’s scenes in particular read as little more than mundane fluff featuring the screenwriter-turned-actor drinking water, drinking coffee, drinking whiskey, eating cereal, eating Chinese noodles, and doing anything other than moving the story forward.
Barrett, Wingard, and Swanberg belong to the same circle of indie and genre filmmakers who often appear or are otherwise involved in each other’s works. While it is usually fun to work with your friends, Swanberg does himself a disservice by letting loyalty get in the way of making smarter filmmaking decisions.
Having heard Barrett come down on himself before for not being a professionally trained actor, I might expect him to be first to agree that he is out of his depth in attempting to portray a convincing police detective. Swanberg appears to be in on the joke by including a shot of Barrett fumbling with his badge being on the wrong side of his belt, but neither the actor nor the character has the presence required to anchor an entire feature.
On the other hand, the unfamiliar actresses are perfectly cast. Helen Rogers bites her nails and wrinkles her nose with the same mousy perk of the quiet cute girl who sat behind you in high school. Sophia Takal and Caroline White display equal amounts of similarly accessible charm and “real person” appeal. These are women who look like they just walked out of the bar down the street or the apartment next door, as opposed to a typical Hollywood soundstage. And that is a compliment.
The problem is that none of these people are terribly interesting, and so neither is “24 Exposures.” The film never takes off as a whodunit since no one is ever presented as a suspect with a discernible motive. The murders are ambiguous events, so underplayed as to be incidental. Jasper Lee’s score is leaned on heavily to inject tension where the story has none. Innocuous shots of things like Barrett lying in bed are accompanied by ominous tones to suggest some kind of mood. Otherwise, “24 Exposures” is primarily a lot of things just sort of happening, as devoid of motive as the murder suspects.
A cynic can almost picture Swanberg smirking behind the scenes as he challenges critics to categorize the genre blend on display while puzzling out the purpose of the film. Said cynic may also conclude that simply presenting that challenge is the purpose.
“24 Exposures” ends with a meta-scene featuring Swanberg himself all but winking into the lens as he acknowledges everything wrong with his story under the guise of a literary agent critiquing a book based on the events just witnessed. It plays like a gambler hedging his bets as if to say “yeah, I know” in response to anyone claiming his movie lacks a sensible plot. His movie gives the appearance of intentionally damning mainstream appeal, but such self-awareness says he wants us to know he is smarter than his movie gives him credit for.
Joe Swanberg is talented, and there are flashes of a skilled craftsman at work in “24 Exposures.” But the “let’s see what happens” approach to making a new age noir thriller reads like an auteur working with one hand instead of two, simply to see if he can do it.
Review Score: 50