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He’s Scarier Than He Looks

Baghead, an audience favorite and critical hit at this year’s Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals, is the second film from writing/directing/producing brothers, Jay and Mark Duplass. Their first film, The Puffy Chair, a so-called “mumblecore” effort (i.e. a twenty-something character-driven indie comedy/drama, heavy on non-action and natural speech patterns), was also a hit on the festival circuit. For Baghead, the Duplass Brothers decided to combine their mumblecore roots with the horror genre, to surprisingly positive results.

Matt (Ross Partridge) and Chad (Steve Zissis), aspiring actors on the wrong side of thirty, and two female friends and fellow actors, the crush-worthy Michelle (Greta Gerwig), and Catherine (Elise Muller), Matt’s ex-girlfriend, are at a loss to kick start their careers until they sit in on the premiere of an indie filmmaker’s feature-length film, We Are Naked. Spurred on by the actor-writer-director-editor of the film, Jett Garner (Jett Garner), and how he got his film made for almost nothing, Matt suggests a weekend away to brainstorm ideas for a screenplay they’ll be able to star and produce themselves. Luckily, Chad’s uncle has just the right getaway, an isolated cabin 11 miles from the nearest highway in Big Bear, California.

At the cabin, the first idea centers on a four-character relationship drama. Chad, crushing hard on Michelle, tries to be cast as her “movie boyfriend". While Michelle, crushing hard on the better-looking Matt, has an obstacle to getting together with him, Catherine. Catherine and Matt’s on-again, off-again 11-year romantic relationship is currently off, but that doesn’t stop Catherine from playing territorial games with Michelle or Matt. After a night of mostly unproductive brainstorming, Michelle dreams about a stalker/serial killer wearing a paper bag over his head. Matt instantly takes to the idea, but the sexual tensions and frustrations poses a significant danger to the four friends. And after stunts, feints, and occasionally vicious game-playing between the four characters, a man wearing a sack over his head and wielding a knife appears nearby.

Baghead plays with the boundaries of fiction and reality (at least the characters’ reality), subverts audience expectations and genre conventions, and slides between relationship drama and horror film over the course of its 84-minute running. The ultimate result is a wholly satisfying, cleverly plotted indie film. The Duplass Brothers combine keen insights into reasonably grounded human motivation with a handful of carefully developed scares, Blair Witch Project-style.

Unfortunately, the Duplass Brothers took more than the documentary-style approach from The Blair Witch Project; they also borrowed its shaky, jittery, handheld camerawork. A once fresh and invigorating addition to the low budget, indie filmmaker’s toolbox, the shaky cam thing has become tiresome, clichéd, and, worst of all, annoying. It’s also completely unnecessary.

Luckily for the Duplass Brothers, they managed to avoid another indie film pitfall: under-talented or under-rehearsed actors blowing their line readings, either over emphatically or, conversely, flatly. The four members of the cast acquit themselves well above the general expectations for a low-budget indie film. The Duplass Brothers chose their actors well, each cast for their “fit". Of the four, Ross Partridge and Greta Gerwig seem to be the most comfortable in front of the camera, giving breezy, naturalistic performances. Expect more from Partridge and Gerwig.

The same applies to the Duplass Brothers: they show enough talent and skill to merit a larger budget next time out. Not surprisingly, they’ve already signed a production deal with a major Hollywood studio. On its own, though, Baghead is an effective and engaging piece of DIY indie filmmaking that never overstays its welcome.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars