Written & Directed by Joe Swanberg
Starring Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Caroline White, Sophia Takal, Helen Rogers
‘24 Exposures,’ the latest in a long string of recent projects from mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg, is a competently acted, relatively low-key (given its lurid subject matter) pseudo-thriller that is populated with too many thinly-fleshed out characters. But the film ultimately sticks its landing as a clever, meta statement about the neat, overly structured nature of bloody suspense flicks.
“24 Exposures” centers around Billy (Adam Wingard), a professional photographer. We first meet him snapping photos of a woman in various stages of undress, but it is a tame scene compared to his usual professional milieu: posing naked women in gory death scenes, lying in bathtubs or in car trunks with false bruising, sickly-pale corpse makeup, and fake blood coating their bare flesh.
Billy is dating Alex (Caroline White), a girlfriend who is mostly supportive of his photography and his appetites—even to the point of sharing a threesome with him and Callie (Sophia Takal), one of his photography subjects. But Alex has her jealousies, and does not want him sleeping around on his own—and his reliability in this department is questionable at best. Things get particularly uncomfortable when Callie decides she wants Billy for herself. He even callously encourages her desires by giving her a quick kiss while Alex is away, even though he is not particularly interested. Callie slowly builds to a ‘Fatal Attraction’-level of obsession.
The problem is, “24 Exposures” is not ‘Fatal Attraction’. The characters in this particular love triangle character are bland, usually defined by one or two simple traits—the sleazy pseudo-intellectual, the jealous girlfriend. (Other side characters, such as Billy’s new photography subject, Rebecca (Helen Rogers) and her possessive boyfriend feel even less fleshed out.) Admittedly, the love triangle is in part a parody of stalker films, but the story is played too straight, tongue planted firmly away from cheek.
Yet ‘24 Exposures’ does not go off the rails, largely because of Michael (Simon Barrett), a homicide detective tasked with investigating the very real murder of one of Billy’s former (and now ESPECIALLY former) photography subjects. When he is not hunting the killer, Michael lies in bed in his hotel room, drinking whiskey and watching cartoons, or masturbating to the sound of people having sex in the next room. Meanwhile, he develops an awkward camaraderie with Billy.
Relentlessly hangdog, Michael is a parody of the dark, driven crime thriller detective archetype, passing one step farther than the usual haunted stoicism and moving right into suicidal depression. In ‘Heat,’ Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) grows estranged from his wife because he is obsessed with his job. In “24 Exposures,” Michael’s ex tells him she was able to handle the nature of his work, but not his clinical depression. In ‘Lethal Weapon,’ Detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) puts a gun in his mouth because he is haunted by his wife’s murder. In “24 Exposures,” Michael puts a gun in his mouth, well, just because. He is by far the most original and clever invention on screen, and his scenes always elevate the film.
The film’s most inspired moment comes in a brilliant metatextual scene near the conclusion. After the investigation has ended and more blood has been spilled, Michael pitches the whole story to a literary agent, who promptly tells him to turn his narrative into a true crime thriller rather than a straight memoir. “I don’t mean to tell you your life is not interesting,” he says, while suggesting exactly that. Michael’s story—in other words, the events of the film—simply haven’t conformed to the neat structure that audiences expect from crime thrillers. In the real world, murder investigations can be chaotic and conclude in unsatisfying ways. And that’s just not what people want to see. They want fiction.
It is only when the film settles into those heavily meta moments that it achieves brilliance. Like Billy’s staged photography, the crime thriller genre, from ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ to ‘Se7en,’ presents us with carefully arranged fictions, as well as sex and violence for entertainment’s sake. “24 Exposures,” meanwhile, turns a mirror on itself, focusing on the staged nature of such pieces of entertainment even as it evolves into one itself.
— David Teich