“Silver Bullets,” the new movie by one man band Joe Swanberg (who writes, directs, stars in and edits all of his micro-budgeted features), is fairly ambitious, especially since Swanberg is a godhead in the mumblecore film genre, a movement largely defined by its lackluster commitment to, well, anything. He’s attempting to wed the mumblecore aesthetic (or is it lack-of-aesthetic?) — low-fi camerawork, naturalistic performances, unflattering nudity — with the psychological intensity of conventional horror films (although, as you’d expect, Swanberg’s definition of horror is more neurotic and introspective).
When the film premiered at the Swanberg-sympathetic SXSW earlier this year, the filmmaker said that he began working on the movie without even the most basic script – it was his loosest and most improvised movie to date. This is really saying something, since Swanberg’s previous films aren’t exactly known for their narrative rigidity, but also because there is, amongst all the tangents and self-indulgent asides, something akin to an identifiable thriller, nestled in there somewhere. Not that the movie is any good.
The film concerns a nebbish director (Swanberg, naturally), whose cutie-pie actress girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) is starring in a new horror film directed by a contemporary (the horror director is played by real-life horror director Ti West). While she shoots the horror movie (called, naturally, “Silver Bullets”), he embarks on his own film (starring his girlfriend’s best friend, Amy Seimetz). Swanberg becomes increasingly jealous of his girlfriend’s involvement in the horror film (and the horror film’s young, hip, bearded director), while his girlfriend cannot believe that he’s cast her best friend in his movie. “You know what kind of movies you make,” she sighs, a sly in-joke for those of us that are already aware of the emotionally raw, nudity-filled movie that Swanberg has made his name for.
There are a number of interesting ideas that drift through “Silver Bullets” – the idea of psychosexual obsession as it relates to art is a particularly tantalizing one that’s never fully developed or latched onto. But none of these ideas have much traction, and it’s hard to become invested especially when, in one sequence, Swanberg lays out that he doesn’t really like making movies or watching movies. In a movie so clearly autobiographical, this sounds less like a snippet of dialogue and more like a diary entry, and the joylessness of the sentiment can be felt throughout the movie, especially towards the end, when caution is thrown out for a series of nonsensical horror-ish moments and an ending that suggests that the toxic combination of lost love and a lousy movie can drive someone to suicide (highly unlikely).
At the same festival this spring Ti West premiered “The Innkeepers,” in which a couple of chatty hotel managers (played by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) tend to a spooky establishment on the eve of its foreclosure. The movie traded in some very basic tenants, including an abundance of seemingly free-form dialogue and not much adherence to conventional plot mechanics. It did what “Silver Bullets” set out to do, but in a much more cohesive and entertaining way (Swanberg seems downright allergic to humor); it tugged on the boundaries of both the mumblecore and horror genres and wound up creating something snappy and new.
“Silver Bullets,” on the other hand, can’t ever quite find its footing. It trades on commonplace emotions (jealousy, frustration), but never engages you in any real way, both aesthetically, since it’s hard to be gripped by a movie where you can barely make out what’s going on since the whole thing looks like it was shot at the bottom of the ocean, and intellectually, since the filmmaker seems more interested at sizing up his own oeuvre than playing with the audience. “Silver Bullets” could have been a nifty genre mash-up, exposing the movement’s mindset to an entire different group of viewers while making a horror movie as emotionally raw as it was bloody. Instead, despite its premise, it stays far too firmly entrenched in the less-is-more, my-feelings-suck-more-than-your-feelings world of mumblecore. And, really, that might be the most horrific thing of all. At one point Swanberg laments, “I don’t care what the critics think.” The feeling’s mutual. [D]