I’ve never been inclined to call Joe Swanberg’s filmmaking sloppy or amateurish (as some do), but what he does is distinctive enough to require of the viewer some time and patience to get acclimated. Thinking about style (which pushes toward the strange) instead of craft (which, for good or ill, needs the artist to color inside the lines), I’ve come to expect certain things from his movies. Dialogue relies heavily on improvisation, but within an apparent design: Conversations circle around “what needs to be said” but sometimes descend, which is counterintuitive to what we’ve come to understand about mumblecore cinema, the received wisdom regarding which is that nobody ever says what’s on their mind, they just go “um” and “you know” a lot. Also, characters seem to be coached away from conceptualizing their emotions and the situations they find themselves in, instead explaining themselves plainly, furtively perhaps, but refusing to give up and fall back on “I don’t know, it’s just…,” at least not without trying again, and again, and again.
While another of Swanberg’s 2011 films, Silver Bullets, pointedly invokes his Greta Gerwig collaboration, Nights and Weekends, Caitlin Plays Herself channels less of that film’s structure and more of its spirit of longing, and the trajectory of a doomed relationship. Caitlin Plays Herself has two more things in common with the 2008 film: Longish segments broken up by narrative blackouts and pronounced (yet unspecified) leaps forward in story chronology, and the movie was co-written by the lead actress, as Gerwig co-wrote Nights and Weekends.
Subtle but unexpected changes in Caitlin Plays Herself include camera direction by Swanberg that relies heavily on stationary, carefully composed master shots, so that the movie resembles Tsai Ming-liang’s duration style more than any of his previous films. (Plus, Caitlin’s bunny rabbit is very What Time Is It There?) Also, while the foregrounding of the female lead is not unprecedented for Swanberg, with Caitlin it feels as if some decisive point of adulthood has been crossed; this is the first time I could picture a mumblecore protagonist turning 40, 50, and so on. This has a lot to do with Caitlin’s (the actress) conception and performance, which conveys Caitlin’s (character) strength and good humor. Although we can glimpse her vulnerability and doubt from scene to scene, she might be the most well-armed and well-fortified protagonist Swanberg’s ever given us. Her response to her boyfriend’s (Swanberg) groundless, passive-aggressive, immature fit of jealousy is to seek out a more suitable companion, one capable of keeping their shit together.
The ending is curious; tonally it’s consistent with the off-hand digressions into (non-lethal) horror that helped shape Silver Bullets, but leaving a protagonist in a state of bewilderment, even if her circumstances cleanly and clearly connect the last shot with the first, seems a concession to a kind of screenwriting resolution that’s leagues away from, say, the Chabrolian close-up that closes Silver Bullets, or the bleak conclusion of Nights and Weekends, or the wordless absurdity in the final bit of theater in Alexander the Last. Still, Swanberg compellingly matches his character’s passive-aggressive, yet eager-to-please, yet combative infatuation with Caitlin with a “cinematic” tableaux style that (on a conceptual plane) butts heads with Caitlin’s experimental theater pieces, i.e. his point of contention with her from the very start. His birthday gift to her—a tent—is a dickish, Homer Simpson-y jab at her presumed environmentalism, but it grows to symbolize, movingly, the pair’s untenable situation.