Studio: The Orchard
Director: Patrick Brice
Writer: Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice
Producer: Jason Blum, Carolyn Craddock
Stars: Mark Duplass, Desiree Akhavan, Karan Soni
An aspiring documentarian challenges herself to create a video with a strange man claiming to be a prolific serial killer.
“Creep” (review here) was a surprise standout at SXSW 2014, perhaps to no one more so than its writers/stars Patrick Brice, who also directed, and indie ‘it’ guy Mark Duplass. Brice and Duplass cop to having little idea what shape their experimental concept would even take when they first rolled camera. What they wound up with was a subtly satirical “found footage” thriller that was smarter and scarier than should have been possible, considering it was improvised out of a 10-page outline starting simply as a two-person character study.
Despite immensely enjoying the original, when unexpected acclaim led to an announcement of plans for a “Creep” trilogy, I was about as enthusiastic at that prospect as the promise of multiple “Avatar” sequels no one but James Cameron asked for. 999 out of 1,000 times, making up a movie on the go without any money to boot is a recipe for self-indulgent disaster. “Creep” was a rare case of catching serendipity in a bottle after shooting and editing over a period of 1.5 years. Attempting to recreate that alchemy risks reeking of artistic arrogance in thinking they could get away with it a second time.
“Creep” works so well because Duplass’ character, called Josef in the first film but rechristened with his victim Aaron’s name in the sequel, presents himself as a magnetic riddle to be solved. “Creep” cleverly uses weird waves in his personality to take viewers on an uncomfortably undulating journey toward deciphering who he is. Suspense comes from the uncertainty of intentions as well as anticipation regarding the reveal of the tension’s ultimate outcome.
With his true identity already out of that bag, for us anyway, “Creep 2” starts behind its own 8-ball when first footsteps follow a similar formula. The sequel eventually catches on that more of the same isn’t going to fly and redirects. But its first half ends up being a passive patience game of waiting for the new protagonist to hurdle an expositional hump before breaking out with an intriguing persona of her own.
Whereas ‘Old Aaron’ was made relatable by reflecting our same cautious curiosity about Josef, Sara more closely resembles the filmmakers during their first time around this block. She isn’t entirely certain where her weirdo project will take her, yet her complete investment in Zen trusts the trip will be worth it regardless of destination.
An aspiring documentarian of sorts, Sara is excited about her YouTube series chronicling encounters with odd loners who post Craigslist personals. The world wide web doesn’t share her passion. Thoroughly dejected after her latest episode collects only nine views, Sara considers abandoning the camera altogether when ‘New Aaron,’ formerly Josef, hires her for a project of a slightly different variety.
In an obvious bit of meta-commentary, Aaron doesn’t wish to merely rehash the same conversational cat-and-mouse video he previously made with ‘Old Aaron.’ Within the first few minutes of meeting each other, Aaron straight up confesses to murdering 39 people before telling Sara he wants her to make a movie about the most prolific serial killer no one has heard of.
Sara can’t tell if Aaron is a conman or a crackpot, though she definitely doesn’t believe his claim of being a killer. She instead sniffs out as much of an opportunity for good television as she does danger, so Sara guardedly goes all in with every last chip to see what a day in Aaron’s life holds in store.
I appreciate as a critic when sequels make it an easy matter to say, “how you felt about the previous movie is likely how you’ll feel about the follow-up.” That’s essentially true of “Creep 2.” In particular, I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t click with the original finding the personality portraits compelling in this case either. For those who did engage with “Creep,” part of getting into part two relates to how well one continues responding to Mark Duplass’ onscreen storytelling style, as “Creep 2” features a fair deal of the actor spinning anecdotes and insights while the camera keeps close on his head and shoulders during lengthy, unbroken takes.
Duplass’ shtick as Josef/Aaron/Peachfuzz is too familiar to take the second film as far as it took the first. The sequel still tries, which is why so much of the movie initially feels like “Creep 1.5” rather than “Creep 2.” On one hand, there’s little reason to fault Brice and Duplass for starting from the same seed since that character was the first film’s core. To its credit, when “Creep 2” finally figures out which branch is best to follow, this time organically adlibbing from a 15-page outline, a blinding “aha!” bulb course corrects the film for a far sharper second half.
That bright light comes courtesy of actress Desiree Akhavan as Sara. While “Creep” made a mystery out of Duplass’ deconstruction, “Creep 2” captivates with a conundrum about how Sara’s reactions to his behavior will impact their chemistry while evolving Sara as a character. Sara is savvy, assertive, resourceful, and intuitive. However, she is also desperate, and ambition colors how Sara breaks her own boundaries to break down her subject, without consciously noticing how she compromises herself in the process.
The balance Akhavan brings to her seesaw with Duplass establishes a new focal point of fascination within “Creep 2.” Their dynamic may not have the same style of sizzle as Josef and Aaron’s because the element of uncertainty is diminished. Yet the way “Creep 2” playfully teases possibilities of Sara turning the tables, turning into Shawnee Smith to Duplass’ Jigsaw, or turning in some other direction entirely ties the sequel together before it can run into a rut of redundancy.
At some point, inherent limitations in the “Creep” concept will completely constrict the creators’ capacity for expanding it through imagination or abilities, as nearly happens here. For now, adding Desiree Akhavan to their arsenal allows Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass to squeak “Creep 2” by on sheer creative willpower when their frame doesn’t necessarily have the legs to carry multiple feature films.
Review Score: 60