I’m pretty tolerant when it comes to mumblecore, even when it’s self-indulgent. Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets is a textbook example of the dangers of low budget indie romance, and how context doesn’t fucking matter to the final filmic project. It’s a shitty little indie film about two shitty little indie filmmakers fighting over a pretty little indie actress. But fighting’s the wrong word, because it would imply effort. It’s such a massively navel gazing film, where the actors only look up long enough to make out, and then go back to awkwardly navel gazing. It’s like emo coffeehouse porn, and it’s not helped by the painfully overly artsy methodology. It’s someone muttering an awful epic poem into an open mic, then suddenly going screamcore over five lines, only to mutter the coda. When Joe Swanberg presented the movie, he said that while working on it, he hated the process, hated the film, and basically wanted to quit film while working on it, and I can only say that was the best idea he had in relation to this film. It’s a muddled mess, and that hatred and loathing and depressiveness comes across in every frame. But that’s the thing about Swanberg’s films: he does them for what amounts to cab fare, gathering up interesting friends and firing out a project in five or six days. He’s got something like seven separate films he’s working on. So he can afford to take a dump on one or two of them and not lose a step. And when the only captivating aspect of your film — the werewolf concept — is metaphorical, it’s pretty damn easy to smell which one this is.
Newcomer Katie Lyn Sheil plays Claire, a young actress just building her career. She lives with her boyfriend Ethan, played by writer/director Joe Swanberg, an amateur filmmaker who makes little autobiographical artsy films where he and Claire play boyfriend and girlfriend. Claire gets a job in a period werewolf film written and directed by Ben (played by indie horror director Ti West), which of course sparks a fume of jealousy in her boyfriend. So he starts making another film with Claire’s best friend Charlie (Amy Seimetz) who is also an actress. Which makes Ethan jealous. And then begins this sort of slow spiraling wistful decline in as awkward as a middle school slow dance.
I appreciate meta films as much as the next guy. So the fact that Swanberg went through a depression after reading what film site were writing about him and so wrote and directed a film about a depressed director who makes extremely intimate and personal sexual films which pits him jealously against a more “commercial” horror director played by an actual horror director who’s getting critical acclaim for his indie and more commercial horror directors (and who actually presented his much more lauded horror film The Innkeepers) in a film that I’m about to criticize on a film site — I think fourteen hipsters just imploded. But the film shows marks of his depression. He clearly had no idea how to end or begin his film, he went sort of disparate and confused. The final product is patched together with a soundtrack that Swanberg was clearly enamored with and used as an epoxy on every fucking scene. It meanders lackadaisically from moment to moment, until with the abruptness of a car crash, shit suddenly happens. None of which we can tell is fantasy or reality. Not that we really care at that point. As one of my fine colleagues elucidated, “If I fall asleep when there’s a completely naked chick on screen, there’s something wrong with your movie.”
Clearly, Swanberg’s going for a metaphor for actors with the werewolf thing. Changeable identity, sudden savage violence, becoming different people. I get it. And it’s not to say there’s nothing of any value to Silver Bullets. There’s some fine performances by all the actors involved, particularly Ti West. There’s a wonderfully awkward scene where two of the characters are fooling around with a giant werewolf mask, which turns into a regretful stolen kiss. Sadly, and quietly, the kisser puts the giant wolf mask back over the other one’s head. It’s a brilliant and honest and clever moment. But those come few and far between, opting for a more artsy over content. Sure, Swanberg claims that he’s channeling David Foster Wallace and Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Cool. This review is based on Back to the Future. I wish I could go back and time and stop myself from seeing it. Also I feel like I suffered a car crash and ended up neck deep in horseshit.
I jest, of course. Swanberg’s a talented director and he was trying something new. Well, he was doing something he does all the time but it turned out bad and he tried to salvage it. Swanberg’s a good actor, and a decent filmmaker if you like mumblecore. Granted, hearing his explanations and understanding some of the motivations behind the film explain many of the flaws. But as a film viewer, you don’t get handed a pamphlet before you watch the movie at home or in a theatre. Joe Swanberg doesn’t do a Q&A at every film. You have to take the final product at face value, and the final product is flawed. But Joe’s got like seven fucking films on his slate. He’s basically stopped reading comments on the internet about himself, and it made him feel better. I had the same goddamn experience here, writing reviews. It was getting frustrating busting my ass to get to theatres to see small films no one has heard of, scrambling to write the review and getting assholes raking me over the coals over a difference of opinion. So I blocked the comments, did my reviews, and felt a hell of a lot better. So whether he’s listening to me or not, he’ll be fine. He’s clearly done with this film — it doesn’t even appear on his IMDb page. He’s moved on, making more projects, and doing just fine.