From the outset, mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg has made divisive and uniquely scrappy character studies, but with time the prolific filmmaker's work has incorporated more readily accessible and conventional genre ingredients. While "Drinking Buddies," currently available on VOD ahead of its theatrical release next month, provides the best current example of Swanberg's improvisatory approach growing more palatable (with its incorporation of romantic comedy and stars), Swanberg seems to always have another movie ready to go that complicates any particular discussion of his range. In this case, the new arrival is "24 Exposures," a clever meta-thriller with erotic components that echo some of his earlier projects but a welcome dose of wittiness that invites viewers in. While hardly as refined as "Drinking Buddies," it's his first movie that never quite takes itself too seriously.
For those familiar with Swanberg's work, "24 Exposures" hails more from his darker explorations of relationships than the comedic entries in his filmography, though here the director toys with depraved ingredients in much the same manner as he did in "Autoerotica," which he made with emerging horror auteur Adam Wingard -- who stars in "24 Exposures" alongside his writing partner Simon Barrett. Wingard and Barrett wrote the upcoming crowd-pleasing midnight movie "You're Next," in which Swanberg plays a cheeky supporting role. That comparatively big budget production manages to present a gripping survival narrative while also delivering a series of campy twists, and even though "24 Exposures" lacks the same refinement, it maintains a similarly wry self-awareness that sustains a loose, somewhat derivative story by essentially making fun of the various formulas at work.
READ MORE: Delightful Relationship Comedy 'Drinking Buddies' Marks a Career High for Joe Swanberg
Wingard stars in a role Swanberg may have played himself not long ago. As self-involved photographer Billy, Wingard's character spends much of his time planning ghoulish photo shoots with scantily clad women covered in fake bruises and blood, often faking their deaths. While his cheery girlfriend (Caroline White) tends to accommodate Billy's attraction to his subjects as long as he involves her, Billy's urges naturally lead him into dicey waters, as he falls for a local waitress he lures into one shoot and accidentally leads on the subject of another (Sophia Takal). Billy's inability to draw a line between work and pleasure typically combusts, as it does in Swanberg's "Art History" and "The Zone," but in "24 Exposures" the miscommunication leads to murderous events. When some of his subjects start turning up dead, a lonely, straight-faced police officer (Barrett) turns up at Billy's photo shoots and forms a strange bond with him.
While these events unfold in somewhat discombobulated fashion and neither Barrett nor Wingard appear to take their characters that seriously -- you can almost see them starting to smirk at the end of various scenes -- the contrast between the ingredients of a traditional erotic thriller and a more ramshackle, introspective DIY character study turns the entire premise into something of a grand joke held together by Swanberg's noticeably improved production values. Shifting between shaky cam shots and tripods, still frames from Billy's photos and interstitials following Barrett's mundane investigative routine practically copied and pasted from a television cop show, "24 Exposures" looks like the product of someone in control of his material, however tame the results.
As a whole, the plot remains fairly simplistic compared to the director's usually textured dramas. But that ends up feeding into the gag in a final reveal that includes a Swanberg cameo and reflects his ability to recognize his story's flaws in the actual work, as he did in "The Zone." To a certain extent, "24 Exposures" also features the jokier alternative to his last project to invoke horror elements, "Silver Bullets." Even viewers uncertain or simply unconvinced of Swanberg's growing filmmaking talent must acknowledge his consistency, and those willing to keep track of his output will find that at this point the movies speak to each other with far better communicative abilities than the characters populating them.
At 77 minutes, "24 Exposures" never achieves a great emotional weight, but it does manage to grapple with some potent themes involving the boundaries of monogamy and relationship dynamics with a delectable combination of creepiness and fun. At its core, Wingard makes for an amusing embodiment of creativity driven by sheer egomania. "I would say that I take personal fetish photos," he says when asked by a potential subject about his work, "but I mean that in the classiest way possible." But elsewhere, he confesses that he's an "irresponsible artist, which is the sign of a good artist." A couple of years ago, Swanberg might have said those words onscreen with less irony, but nowadays his tone suggests he's getting the last laugh.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having premiered this week at Fantasia Fest, "24 Exposures" seems unlikely perform much business in theaters, but could manage to generate some solid interest in digital due its combination of genre elements and sex (as well as a title that starts with numbers).