Mumble, mumble, murder

A photographer shoots fake crime scenes in Joe Swanberg's meta-thriller '24 Exposures'

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Simon Barrett (center) investigates a murder in 24 Exposures.
PHOTO BY JOE SWANBERG

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Joe Swanberg's latest film to play the Roxie, 24 Exposures, isn't actually his newest. That'd be family drama Happy Christmas, which just premiered at Sundance. Going by festival reviews, Christmas sounds like it's in the vein of Swanberg's Drinking Buddies — last year's Olivia Wilde-starring tiptoe into the mainstream, a departure for the indie writer-director-actor — with a marquee cast that includes Buddies' Anna Kendrick and hipster queen Lena Dunham.

24 Exposures is the busy artist's 15th flick to play the Roxie in a year (the list includes Buddies, 2012's acclaimed All the Light in the Sky, 2007 breakout Hannah Takes the Stairs, and the only public screening to date of short Privacy Settings). In some ways, 24 Exposures marks another departure, being an "erotic thriller" (scare quotes needed, because it's highly aware of its genre) — though it also incorporates Swanberg's affection for relationships that aren't working out, no matter how much the principals talk about their problems. His interest in horror (see: his participation in 2012 anthology film V/H/S and 2011 cult hit You're Next, etc.) flavors 24 Exposures' plot: Parallel lives collide when photographer Billy (Adam Wingard), who snaps cute, topless women posed in gruesome death scenes, meets depressed cop Michael (Simon Barrett), who happens to be investigating the actual murder of a cute, topless woman.

Yep, this film stars director Wingard and writer Barrett of You're Next and V/H/S fame. That slurping sound you hear is the mumblecore snake eating its tail, and not for the first time. (Is there anyone in that scene who hasn't appeared in or worked on a peer's film? The answer is no.) In 24 Exposures, it's less of an in-joke than expected, since Billy and Michael don't achieve BFF mode until the film's coda. The relationships that form the core of the film are between Billy and the various women in his life, including girlfriend Alex (Caroline White), who is totes cool with his artistic pursuits as long as she's included in the process, and any three-ways that occur after the shoots. Inevitably, there's tension when she returns from a weekend away and realizes Billy's been "taking smutty pictures when I'm not here."

Billy is a sleaze, but otherwise he's basically a harmless dude in a cardigan. If 24 Exposures had been made in early 1980s Europe, the film would pump out more bloody bodies for Michael to find; there'd be way more POV creeping and probably a chase involving an unseen killer wearing black leather gloves. Despite a sleek credit sequence illustrated with pulpy artwork, this is no lo-fi giallo. A better reference point is one from the script itself: Silk Stalkings, that 1990s epitome of basic-cable sexy thrillerdom. That it's brought up jokingly (as in, "Do you feel like a character in Silk Stalkings right now?") only enforces 24 Exposures' aspirations toward meta-ness.

The self-consciousness doesn't end there. The film's synthy score, which swells knowingly during suspenseful moments, is another obviously obvious choice. But if you're expecting 24 Exposures to descend into full-on camp, you'll come away disappointed. Lurid is perhaps a better descriptor, since 24 Exposures is bulging with "boobies" — a word Billy uses moments after explaining to a skeptical model that he practices "dress-up mixed with fine art." Earlier, he's described his work as "personal fetish photos," clarifying that they're "classy." (Truly, they're not.) We never see the results displayed anywhere, yet this is apparently his profession, not a private hobby, since the photo shoots involve makeup artists and assistants.

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