In their new movie Baghead, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass have created a clever hybrid: a relationship comedy about with the structure of a slasher flick, and a genre-bending concoction that gently mocks the conventions and pretensions of indie film even as it embodies a fiercely independent ethic.
Baghead follows four actor friends — Chad (Steve Zissis), Matt (Ross Partridge), Michelle (Greta Gerwig), and Catherine (Elise Muller) — who, after attending an underground film festival, decide to spend a weekend in the woods writing a screenplay for a movie they'll star in and that they hope will jump-start their stalled careers. When Michelle has a dream about being chased by a man with a paper bag over his head, the group quickly decides to write a horror script inspired by it. What follows is a series of funny set pieces in which escalating sexual tensions among the friends overwhelm their ability to work, and the idea of a stranger with a bag over his head becomes, literally, a means of expressing their anger.
At its heart, Baghead is a movie about the actors' dissatisfaction with their lives. It’s about their frustration with a Hollywood system that is difficult to break into, their lack of ambition and inability to finish the projects they start, the desires and anxieties that fuel the making of an independent film, and the loneliness of being single and underemployed. When the friends realize partway through filming that they have lost control of their horror-movie plot and have to find a way out of the woods, Baghead's real creepiness sets in. The horror tropes that increasingly structure the film highlight the characters’ fraught emotional states and allow the Duplass brothers to gently satirize a recognizable subgenre of American independent film: the bittersweet comedy-drama about a group of Gen-X friends trying to find their way in the world.
The Duplass brothers are an integral part of the so-called "mumblecore" movement, a group of younger filmmakers and actors who
use minuscule budgets and hand-held digital cameras to tell tales of
twenty-something angst. Films such as Andrew Bujaski's Funny Ha Ha, Aaron Katz's Dance Party USA, Joe Swanberg's Hannah
Takes the Stairs, and the Duplass brothers' earlier effort The Puffy
Chair employ improvised dialog and intense close-ups to explore the frequently awkward dynamics of characters' relationships
and create moments that feel unscripted. In Baghead these techniques succeed in developing characters whose ambitions and desires are complex and palpable. The actors are excellent, especially Gerwig (who made her name starring Swanberg's LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, whose wide-eyed energy keeps the film focused. And although careful viewers will surely recognize subtle allusions to indie films and horror flicks alike, the movie's great strength is its consistent focus on the characters and their insecurities.
Since the success of The Puffy Chair, the Duplass brothers have rejected several very lucrative deals from major studios, in the belief that independent, low-budget productions provide the best forum for their vision. They want complete control of their work, and in the case of Baghead, that included convincing Sony Pictures Classics to open the film in Austin, TX, where the brothers started their filmmaking careers and near where the film was shot. It will play in several other cities such as Houston, Dallas, and Portland, OR before eventually hitting New York and Los Angeles in mid-summer, a marketing strategy that has garnered a lot of attention, including a recent New York Times article that asks whether this sort of “reverse rollout” is a harbinger of change in the way studios market independent films. But regardless of whether their latest film will incite a revolution in movie marketing, there is no mistaking that the Duplass brothers are creating a compelling body of work on their own terms.