Considering the frank, graphic sexuality and obviously semi-autobiographical portrayals of relationships in Joe Swanberg’s movies, it feels slightly odd to say that Silver Bullets, a film missing most of the director’s usual erections and ejaculations, ranks as his most intimate effort so far. Like his other films, it still centers on a relationship tempted with infidelity, but through this, and through a plot involving the production of two vastly different independent films, Swanberg ponders out loud the role of the filmmaking process in the lives of the creators, and whether or not the resulting films are worth the strain and possible damage the process can cause.
Seeing his unsimulated on-screen portrayals of sex for the past handful of years, I’ve often wondered about the intimacy required by such roles and the issues that might arise in the real-life relationships of Swanberg and his actors. Some of these are indeed addressed in Silver Bullets when Ethan (an undisguised film version of Swanberg) informs his girlfriend Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil) that he intends to cast her best friend as his on-screen girlfriend in his next film, seemingly out of retaliation to the growing closeness between Claire and her own director (none other than Ti West) in an indie werewolf film. “I know how you make your movies,” Claire says fearfully, speaking simultaneously of Ethan and Swanberg. If you’re not already familiar with the director’s filmography, the weight and potential insight of moments like this get a bit lost, and, with his style of storytelling often chided for its navel-gazing, Swanberg’s assumption of your familiarity with his legacy may come across as the height of pretension, but to me these moments came revealed honesty, earnestness, and often pain.
His character also expresses frustration with the film medium as a whole, lamenting the lack of originality in the art form (insert snarky mumblecore joke here), confessing it holds little appeal for him beyond building relationships with new people. I don’t suspect Swanberg’s true feelings about this are more than a fleeting frustration, otherwise he wouldn’t still be pumping out films at an obscene pace, but the film still gets you to consider the idea that if we can’t further the film art form with true originality, we shouldn’t try at all. (Perhaps the notion lingered with me a bit longer in light of Steven Soderbergh’s recent revelation of his intention to retire for somewhat similar reasons.)
Silver Bullets isn’t Swanberg’s solution to that problem; it’s not wildly original, especially outside the context of the director’s own films, but that’s not the point. Swanberg wants to find ways to keep film interesting for both him and us with his own attempts at personal cinematic evolution, and in Silver Bullets he does this by showcasing more artful cinematic chops than we’ve seen from him, particularly in a post-credits build-up bathed in red and a mesmerizing climactic topless werewolf dance of seduction and anger—not exactly something I expected to be writing after Kissing on the Mouth.
Silver Bullets played on March 13 as part of this year’s SWSW.