Joe Swanberg’s earlier films reveled in aimlessness to achieve their thematic intentions. As characters hung out, had sex, and talked about the pithy details of their twentysomething lifestyles, Swanberg would gradually assemble portraits of relationships that naturally arose from the settings. That was the idea, anyway — at best, a movie like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” can make real people seem legitimately entertaining without the crutch of Hollywood contrivances. His follow-up, “Nights and Weekends,” worked around an unsettling breakup story with mixed results. At times it felt too open-ended , or too self aware, but occasionally Swanberg hit on an enterprising synthesis of visual clarity and poised observation of human behavior. In his latest feature, “Alexander the Last,” he finally makes that combination work.
The movie isn’t a huge step for Swanberg so much as a smooth elevator ride up from his previous works: the sex, the chatter and the romantic despair all have a familiar ring. Instead, Swanberg’s has vastly improved his production values, yielding a far more cogent narrative. The story of married Brooklyn actress Alexander (Jess Weixler), whose role in a play causes her to become attracted to her co-star (Barlow Jacobs), the movie focuses on subtle temptations. While her husband (Bishop Allen singer Justin Rice) goes on tour, Alexander tries to set up her co-star with her rambunctious sister (Amy Seimetz), inadvertently setting up a love triangle in which she participates. Most of “Alexander” explores the gradual acceleration of tension between the sisters, at times making the movie feel more like a thriller than some kind of romantic drama. It’s hard to identify a genre for the movie since it continually defies expectations.
Although few scenes seem a bit misplaced (one where the siblings imitate baby sounds sort of irritated me), “Alexander” generally develops with a swift pace and credible performances. It’s a truly cinematic achievement, gorgeously shot by Swanberg with intriguingly symbolic mise-en-scene. He has made an authentic feature-length movie, not a mere accumulation of moments. The results — finally! — illuminate his strengths as a director. Now we know what he was going for in the first place.
(Check out a trailer for the film and an interview with Swanberg here)