Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller
Written & Directed by Jay & Mark Duplass
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Apparently at some point during the six years when I was living in non-indie friendly SW Florida, a new movement in filmmaking arose known as “mumblecore.” According to Wikipedia, it’s “primarily characterized by ultra-low budget production (often employing digital video cameras), focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors.” In other words, it has all the components that make a lot of people flee from the overly-introspective, slow-paced indie scene and complain that all they want is to be entertained, not be forced to endure something akin to a group therapy session. On the other hand, there are plenty of others who have flocked to the movement and embrace it as the next big thing. You can find me somewhere in the middle — I’m always up for a talky, artsy-fartsy flick as long as the characters are engaging and then something happens besides just a lot of chit-chat and self-awareness.
Thanks to the wonderful theatre chain known as Landmark, I was given the opportunity to check out one of mumblecore’s newest entries, Baghead, recently. Some are touting it as the movement’s first true genre film, which I’m not totally convinced of (Paranormal Activity (review) seems to fit the mold pretty well), but regardless of semantics, it does serve as one of the better indie horror offerings so far this year. That is, if it even really qualifies as a horror film. The group I saw it with say it definitely does; however, there are probably just as many who would say it does not. Let’s dig into the story a bit so you can decide for yourselves.
Matt (Partridge) is the de facto leader of a group of four friends who are all struggling to make it in show biz. As Baghead opens, he and his pal Chad (Zissis), along with Matt’s on-again/off-again flame Catherine (Muller) and Chad’s new, so far platonic friend Michelle (Gerwig), are at the premiere of an acquaintance’s new film We Are Naked, which, in the few short seconds it’s on the screen, skewers just about every indie cliché out there. Following a quick Q&A with the filmmaker, our foursome are denied admittance to the exclusive We Are Naked after-party, driving Matt to the conclusion that the only way he and Chad are ever going to achieve any success is to write, direct, and star in their own production. He convinces Chad and the two gals to go away for the weekend to a cabin in Big Bear, where they will collaborate on a script … flirt a little … drink a lot … explore their friendship and relationship issues … and get scared shitless by a guy with a paper bag over his head who emerges from the woods.
It all starts when Michelle wakes up in the middle of the night and runs outside to throw up some of the booze she ingested a few hours before. When morning comes, she’s not sure if she actually saw something or just imagined it. Later, after she’s slipped Matt a note to come to her room for some extra-curricular activities, ol’ Baggie shows up again. It’s all nicely ambiguous as to whether or not Baghead is a real menace or just one (or more) of the group playing a trick on the rest. But then people start disappearing. And that’s when Baghead picks up steam with the group dynamics coming to the forefront.
If a film has characters that I can relate to or care about in some way, then it’s pretty much guaranteed a positive review. The quartet of Matt, Michelle, Catherine, and Chad are all people we know. And the actors playing them don’t hit a single false note. Gerwig’s Michelle starts to drag things down with her incessant “I’m sleepy” act and verging on too quirky cuteness, but then she hits her stride and brings her arc to a fitting conclusion. Zissis has the hard task of playing the stereotypical timid, insecure guy infatuated by an outgoing and self-assured younger woman without seeming pitiful; and he nails it. Although I have to admit his resemblance to John Belushi was pretty distracting at first. Muller, too, is reminiscent of another performer — Catherine Keener (high praise from me indeed) — and should have a bright future. Her performance is layered and, to me, the most interesting of the bunch. But that’s not to short-change Partridge by any means. He makes Matt utterly believable and sympathetic. And natural. Everyone is so damned natural. The Duplass brothers do an outstanding job of drawing you into their circle and involving you in their emotions. But as much as they are to be applauded for everything that’s right about Baghead, they also must take the blame for its few flaws, the camera style being number one. For a while they came close to making me seasick. Zoom in … zoom out … out of focus … focus. Zoom in … zoom out … out of focus … focus. The repetition was growing tedious. But then ol’ Baggie shows up again, and things settle down behind the scenes as the action heats up on the screen.
In terms of special features this DVD is just slightly above passable. There’s an audio commentary with the Duplass brothers, a self-conducted fifteen-minute interview with the Duplass brothers, and two minutes of impromptu Baghead scare pranks.
The script has a few hiccups along the way with it sometimes taking too long to advance from one scene to the next, but like a lot of experimental films, Baghead scores higher on reflection than it does while watching it. Proof positive that with the right partners a marriage between mumblecore and horror can bring out the best of both. It boasts an effortlessly hip, spare soundtrack and just enough self-referential humor and satirical bite to keep the attention of a discriminating indie lover while providing sufficient chills and suspense to satisfy an adventurous horror fan. Best of all, Baghead has gotten a decent DVD release thanks to Sony Pictures Classics’ acquisition of it following Sundance. But, as we’ve seen a million times, success breeds animosity so make sure you check it out before the inevitable backlash against the so-called “mumblecorps” starts. Now that Baghead‘s a hit, the Duplass brothers are sure to become Target Nos. 1 and 2 for the jealous and the disenchanted.
3 out of 5
3 out of 5
Discuss Baghead in our Dread Central forums!