Coming off his hoppy romantic dramedy Drinking Buddies, filmmaker Joe Swanberg isn’t wasting time admiring what a charming little film he created, instead jumping right back into the professional fray with his latest project, 24 Exposures. Exploring the sick world of voyeurism, obsession, and professional integrity, Swanberg suggests there’s a thin, blurry line between art and fetishism – but just how thin? We’ve all seen “dangerous” pieces of artwork under scrutiny for their progressive and questionable nature, but as an artist, how do you defend what some find offensive? Art will always be a debatable topic, but Swanberg also introduces a psychological mystery revolving around the artist himself, really exploring such murky motivations. Some people get into art for the creativity, some for the fame, and some, well, some for all the wrong reasons.
Billy (Adam Wingard) is an aspiring photographer whose material can be likened to recreated crime scene photos of dead naked females – obviously a genre that draws a lot of strange attention. Choosing his models selectively, Billy finds his subjects through instant attraction, which doesn’t always sit well with his girlfriend Alex (Caroline White), as she watches her boyfriend ogle and analyze beautiful women all day. To make matters weirder, Billy starts developing a friendship with local detective Michael Bamfeaux (Simon Barrett) after a grisly murder brings Michael to one of Billy’s shoots with a few questions. As new models are selected and Billy’s attentions shift, the relationships between our characters start to experience added tension from sneaky cheating, jealousy, and obsession – but the consequences may be much more dire than some hurt feelings.
Native Mumblecorian Joe Swanberg’s strong suit is crafting drama and intrigue from nothing but simple character conversations. Looking back on most of his titles, including his horror themed V/H/S segment “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger,” Swanberg relies on actor improvisation and minimalist scripting. This is why having a tight-night group of professionals already familiar with one another’s acting styles becomes a major theme throughout Swanberg’s films, but sometimes this trust becomes a film’s downfall as quickly as it can become a tremendous strength.
This is where 24 Exposures tends to struggle a bit, bringing together familiar faces/boobies for a tonally inconsistent story that never quite establishes that thrilling, psychologically challenging atmosphere. Entering realms that could classify Swanberg’s latest as a true erotic thriller, the fetishized sensuality of Billy’s work is prevalent as the female cast walks around comfortably naked, but amidst the tangled web of hookups, any gripping genre sensibilities find themselves on the backburner – simmering unattended.
Swanberg attempts to draw parallels between Bamfeaux’s real-life evidence photos and Billy’s “artwork” by lining the two scenes up with one another, reaching for an element of surprise when the “corpse” comes to life after being revealed as just another one of Billy’s actresses, not one of Michael’s grisly murder discoveries. Unfortunately, Billy’s underdeveloped nature and the gravity of his shoots doesn’t really warrant such a jolting connection, and what strained attempts Swanberg makes to inject moral quandaries and artsy debate are once again lost somewhere with his limitless sex objects.
Noting the overarching theme of obsession, I was drawn in most by the female leads not when they’re frolicking about with their tops off, but instead with their blind trust. These women want to be Billy’s models, his victims, and love being a part of the artist’s creative process. Adam Wingard’s strongest moments as Billy come when he’s teetering the line between professionally proper and awkwardly creeper-like, never letting us truly get a sense of the photographer’s dark desires. Sophia Takal and Helen Rogers (both Swanberg alumni) embrace their free-spirited characters, displaying different sides of the spectrum when approached by Billy, but as Billy’s attentions sway from one to the other, that’s when the danger becomes apparent. Of course, said danger is drawn out over a stretch of choppy encounters as Billy obliviously creates a monster (so to speak), sullying an ending that climaxes with nothing but a whimper.
Crammed full of beautiful women, 24 Exposures attempts to define the independent sensual thriller genre (does that exist?), but only accomplishes leaving viewers with an airy, unfulfilled feeling. I won’t reveal why it’s mentioned, but at one point in Swanberg’s film, a character comments on another character’s story, exclaiming how it’s not interesting enough to become a best selling novel. Of course, the story in question is the one we so patiently watch, waiting for Swanberg’s signature indie craftsmanship to take over, but 24 Exposures meanders lifelessly until an inevitable ending concludes a story of sex, nudity, jealous rage, and some more T&A for good measure. It’s a shame, too, because a solid idea exists. For some reason Joe Swanberg just has trouble finding a pulse on this crime-scene corpser.
Don’t worry though, I can’t imagine redemption being that far away for Swanberg, who I can only assume has just shot three more movies in the time it took me to write this review.
24 Exposures is an erotic romp without much substance to offer, completely lacking filmmaker Joe Swanberg's typically charming character dynamics and winning indie craftsmanship.