I haven’t seen all of Joe Swanberg’s films, but I’ve seen enough to know that he has a strong desire to expand the scope of his craft. As prolific as he is, sometimes churning out 3 or 4 films in a year, you’d think his pace wouldn’t allow him the pause required to evaluate his own work and course correct, but his visual growth as a filmmaker argues otherwise.
That’s not to say that 24 Exposures is an adrenaline soaked blockbuster destined to win over general audiences. It’s not. But it is engaging in a way that many of his early films aren’t and, along with Drinking Buddies, puts him on the map for me as a filmmaker whose work I’ll actively follow rather than passively encounter.
It also happens to be lurid, gory and at times pretty damn funny (in the driest manner possible). Adam Wingard (the director of You’re Next, The Guest and several installments of the V/H/S films) and Simon Barrett (writer of said films and installments) are paired up as a Walter Hill-esque odd couple in a way that serves as a great access point to the film for anyone familiar with their work. Wingard plays Billy, a photographer who specializes in erotic, blood soaked portraits who soon enough catches the attention of Barrett’s suicidal cop Michael Bamfeaux when one of the models he’s hired turns up dead.
One of the most interesting choices Swanberg makes is to go against type and allow Billy to be willing, enthusiastic even, about participating in the investigation. It’s a refreshing change of pace for this scenario and allows Barrett’s and Wingard’s chemistry together to become the focal point. While this is an occasional reminder that acting isn’t at the top of either of their resumes, they’re still able to get to the center of this dynamic. Billy operates on a gut-instinct level, never questioning his muse or the type of content it engenders. Michael, who has seen enough real-life horror to render him one of the most relentlessly depressed protagonists ever captured on film, can’t understand how Billy can so whimsically create facsimiles of disturbing events.
Another thing Billy doesn’t seem to question is how the women he interacts with will respond to his actions. In his world the lines between subject and girlfriend blend a bit too easily and in turn the women he’s involved with (played by Helen Rogers, Sophia Takal, and Caroline White) are reacting in ways he doesn’t even begin to anticipate. Perhaps because he’s not in the business of anticipating anything.
While all of these ingredients indicate a more explosive mixture than what 24 Exposures ultimately offers up, there’s still a lot of fun to be had. Swanberg turns in a film that is far less static than a lot of his prior work, wringing decent production value out of a minuscule budget. The film also ends on a surprisingly warm and compassionate note given the darkness that precedes it, which is also refreshing. As a rule, if you hate what most people consider to be mumblecore, this isn’t the movie for you. But if you’re open to this somewhat shambolic riff on noir, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.