One of director Joe Swanberg’s prevailing concerns is the consequences of something not happening. Two of Swanberg’s recent films, Drinking Buddies and All the Light in the Sky, respectively invoked non-romances that triggered disappointment and confusion, despite the abundance of evidence presented that would point toward the inevitability of the unions in question. Like a number of directors once associated with the term “mumblecore,” Swanberg expands on the breadth of human experience that most American films deem palatable for audiences; where many movies are about momentum and accomplishment, his films often concern the non-starts that can come to define us without our consent.
One of Swanberg’s non-thrillers, 24 Exposures similarly derives its tension from what doesn’t happen. The film concerns Billy (Adam Wingard), a photographer who specializes in fetish photographs featuring well-endowed women who’re often made up to look as if they’ve died hideous deaths; one such picture shows a subject who appears to have slit her wrists in a bathtub, and the gore of her destroyed lower arms competes with her prominent bare breasts for the viewer’s attention. Billy has a setup that would be the envy of many straight young males: a job that puts him in constant contact with willing beautiful women, and a girlfriend, Alex (Caroline White), who indulges with him the occasional three-way with a take-home model. Yet Billy, in the tradition of many an ungrateful male at the center of a thriller, still has a wandering eye that gets him in trouble and eventually thrusts him at the center of a murder mystery being investigated by a local policeman, Mike (Simon Barrett).
Viewers who first encountered Swanberg’s work with his mainstream-ish Drinking Buddies, or even All the Light in the Sky, might be startled by this film’s lack of polish. The acting isn’t quite competent, and the scenes detailing Mike’s investigation are pointedly unconvincing (Barrett often suggests a boy wearing a fake police badge for Halloween). The genre constructs are almost Brechtian in their lack of gravitas and sincerity, but it’s an earnest insincerity that both emphasizes and questions the stability of Billy’s cocooned, quasi-hedonist existence. Swanberg’s methods of mounting a non-genre film with a consciously absurd disintegrating narrative, complete with a needless meta-scene at the end that ensures we understand that the inadequacies are intentional, accomplish something remarkable. The erotic thriller is divorced of the puritan notion that sex equals violence, because the violence is essentially understood to be a mass delusion collectively dreamed up by young Americans who’ve seen the same crummy sex horror movies we have, and who’re conditioned to resent and fear their desires.
The film’s affected inconsistencies are often disarming. At times, 24 Exposures resembles any other low-budget film in which a bunch of white people stammer over their romantic travails while a camera shakily rotates around them. Punctuating those vignettes, however, are images that superbly elaborate on the chic, salacious avarice of ’50s pinup cover art that captures our most disreputable fantasies of powerful sexual subjugation. Swanberg connects Generation Y’s fetish for past pop-cultural kitsch to its attending sexual insecurities. Though 24 Exposures often appears to be more of a sketch for a future film than the ultimate realization of these ideas, it shows a gifted filmmaker threatening to update the formal self-reflexivity of a craftsman like Brian De Palma for a generation that’s growing increasingly accustomed to images rendered more privately, and considerably more on the fly. The potential here is considerable, as Swanberg may be developing a true poetry of impermanence—forging the ultimate expression of his preoccupation with the things that happen while we wait for the seismic import we’re conditioned to expect.