Full disclosure, of a kind: I'm friends with two critics who harbor diametrically opposed attitudes toward Joe Swanberg's work. The first friend thinks Swanberg is a major filmmaker, whose work affords a multifaceted appreciation for what he's able to do with improvisation, elliptical storytelling, and favored themes (intimacy, work, relationships, art, shooting, confession), while the other thinks he's utterly contemptible. While I don't know the director myself, the first friend has gotten to know Swanberg pretty well over the past few years, so I'm one degree away from a conflict of interest. One degree is sufficient, I think, but this is a worthwhile disclosure because I find, when sitting down to write about a film like Silver Bullets, or anything Swanberg has made, I can't help but have these two highly influential voices in the background of my mind.
My own attitude toward the filmmaker is something like a warm acceptance. I haven't reached the point where I can claim to have been able to tune into his wavelength unreservedly, but I know enough to say, with some authority, that his is a distinctive voice, and that a critic, if so inclined, could document all the key habits and characteristics of the mumblecore "movement," with which Swanberg is still associated, perhaps not wrongly, and fail to assess what he's doing on his own. And I know from past experience how to identify a major artistic voice, while not allowing the fact that I haven't yet fallen in love with their work to interfere with such a determination. Having seen a few of his feature films, it seems glaringly obvious that Swanberg is one of the only DIY filmmakers to have gathered sufficient cache to hammer away at the gates of critical and festival approval, while retaining an edge of experimentalism and introspection that keeps his work alive and alert.
As to what Swanberg's doing, all due respect to friend #2, it's comfortingly easy to lie back and take potshots at pretty much his entire filmography. In fact, Swanberg makes it easy, for two reasons. For starters, the first-time viewer is strongly tempted to process his camerawork and editing as capital-B Bad. As most DIY-grade filmmakers know, at least since the beginning of the Reign of Sundance, there's a certain, intangible, indescribable character of pictorial self-awareness that indie work requires, or else the director risks serious reprobation from all corners, critics and comment-boxers alike. It's as if conventional wisdom were silently willing indie and DIY work to be more like their betters, the Sean Durkins or Debra Graniks of American film, effectively hiding their budgetary constraints. Second, Swanberg locates—and exploits—one of the sorest heartaches critics have, i.e. the ugly truth that there are just some directors who want to unload their emotional and amorous baggage onto the screen, along the way pawing at and making out with beautiful women, again on the screen. The watchword for this offense—self-indulgence—is downright Pavlovian for many critics, and Swanberg doesn't just ring the bell, he rings it like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane.
Which brings us to Silver Bullets. Our tag-happy digital age has already cast this as "mumblecore horror," or "mumblehorror," or some third or fourth editorial variation (we've nearly arrived at the singularity at which the need for the appropriate tags to process art will exceed our ability to manufacture them), which, if you like, is a roman à clef retelling of Swanberg's relationship with Greta Gerwig, who, not long after the pair co-starred in, co-wrote, and co-directed Nights and Weekends, got her well-deserved big break, in no small part thanks to a transitional role (in support) in Ti West's The House of the Devil, in 2009. Gerwig doesn't appear, but West does (along with cult horror icon Larry Fessenden, who was also in The House of the Devil), and a project Swanberg's character is shooting in Silver Bullets bears an unmistakable resemblance to the opening of Nights and Weekends.
If you're not on Swanberg's side (one of the unfortunate side effects of auteurism is the urge to determine whether or not you're on a director's "side"), you'll find yourself struggling with all of this. How could it not be autobiographical, with the Kaufmanesque (or Gondryesque, as it calls to mind his video for Björk's "Bachelorette") film-he's-already-made-within-this-film, the director's own character venting some of the frustrations he's experienced in real life, and so on?
The answer is, it's certainly autobiographical, and it's okay to accept that, but at the same time, it's a mistake to decide that that's the whole show. Swanberg's gaze is inward-looking, but also "looking at looking at," and while no one would surmise that he has ambitions of Altman-esque, multi-strand character tapestries, the satellites which orbit his main character are shrewdly constructed and, given the program of who they are, who they represent, how they're geared up to improvise against one another, and what elements (plucked both from real life and from the films made by him and his circle of friends and family) Swanberg injects into the vein of this shoestring-budgeted film about shoestring-budget (within different tiers) filmmaking, innumerable moments of strangeness and beauty occur almost in ricochet. West's The House of the Devil is a decisive influence but from an oblique angle; Swanberg mixes some of the psychedelic aspects of West's film but stands guard against adopting any of West's agenda (which was to make a truly honest horror homage, with nine parts patience and quiet to every one part gore), or straying very far from the dueling, non-traditional narrative structure he often favors (see also Alexander the Last).
Swanberg's idea of making audiences "happy" is by acknowledging what his supporters and detractors have been saying about him for a number of years, but presenting these things within the same game of elliptical story-unraveling and confession that's governed most of his other films. The artistic impulses remain consistent, if anything considerably more assured, but where many directors who've sustained a career for this long may be willing to rest inside the "schtick" they've crafted, there doesn't seem to be anything that we can say to Swanberg that he isn't able to crystallize as a part of his continuing self-reflection and self-deconstruction. That he uses digital video and a highly developed sense of cutting to make these things material is, at this point, incontrovertible. What's even more praiseworthy is that he seems to want to keep digging.