After watching “Silver Bullets,” the question arises: Will Joe Swanberg tire of the mumblecore moniker as much as auds are tired of the whole genre? Either way, his second feature of 2011 (and it’s only February) brings together his usual self-referential obsessions, this time with a Michael Nyman-inspired score working overtime to find some emotion to drive forward. Pic probably contains Swanberg’s clearest exposition of his philosophy, yet its sad aimlessness, from the mouth of an unhappy director (played by the helmer), elicits only a begrudging pity. The Berlinale launch will increase his international exposure but won’t expand the fanbase.
Fresh off his Sundance-preemed “Uncle Kent,” Swanberg states this new pic is indebted to the disparate influences of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and David Foster Wallace. Apart from a quickly dropped subplot involving Jane Adams as an actress made too aware of her age, and the epilogue’s vague suggestion of suicide, it’s difficult to see exactly how these influences came to settle on this particular film, though one wonders what Chekhov might have done with lycanthropes.
Struggling actress Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil) bags the role of a young werewolf in a new film directed by Ben (Ti West, helmer of “The House of the Devil”). Meanwhile, her b.f., Ethan (Swanberg), casts Claire’s best friend, Charlie (Amy Seimetz, also producing), as his romantic partner in the arthouse pic he’s helming. Adding to the tension between Ethan’s arty aspirations and Ben’s schlocky commercialism are Ethan’s jealousy and Ben’s attraction to Claire.
As Ethan stares at footage he shot of Claire for an earlier project and spirals into depression, he confesses to Charlie that the only reason he makes movies is because he doesn’t know what else to do. “There’s nothing that movies can get me,” he tells her, apart from allowing him to get close to people he finds interesting. Unfortunately, as with so many of Swanberg’s films, the people he finds intriguing rarely cast the same spell onscreen.
Doubtless he’s sticking to the maxim, “Write what you know,” but as in recent Hong Sang-soo pics, the endlessly recycled themes become less and less interesting, especially when tied to Swanberg’s particularly anemic mode of lensing. Even when there’s finally a sense that the characters are feeling something, it’s transmitted with an airlessness that consistently hampers involvement, notwithstanding the feeling that the helmer might be using the pic to work through some of his own depression.
Clearly a great deal of time was spent in the editing room, and it’s here that Swanberg deploys a more sophisticated technique — vital, considering the pic was shot in piecemeal fashion over the course of two years. A near-constant score by the Orange Mighty Trio, with deeply bowed bass lines and rushing piano notes, runs far ahead of the emotional level onscreen, which never manages to catch up. Berlin screened “Silver Bullets” with Swanberg’s third film of the year, “Art History,” though the two are neither narratively nor formally linked.