The relationship between art and entertainment and the dynamic between actor and director get a nuanced airing in Silver Bullets, a significant step forward for Joe Swanberg, a filmmaker best known for chronicling the romantic misadventures of futon-owning twentysomethings. Body parts are still bared and hearts bruised in Silver Bullets, and those on screen play variations of themselves in improvised scenes, but the conflicts also include many of a higher nature, involving issues of authorship and even knottier ones of why we make things in the first place.
Kate Lyn Sheil plays an actress (the characters are left unnamed) who’s served as the star of filmmaker boyfriend Swanberg’s work in the past, but who’s now taken on the lead role in a werewolf flick being directed by another, perhaps more successful, up-and-comer (House Of The Devil director Ti West). It seems directly due to jealousy over this (though he denies it) that her boyfriend has asked her best friend (Amy Seimetz) to act in his newest film, a very Swanberg-like romantic drama in which he’ll also star. Her discomfort with this pairing (“You know the way you make movies!” she chides him) is pitted against the attraction she feels for West, with whom she’s spending a lot of time.
The line between “highly personal” and “navel-gazing” varies depending on one’s feelings toward the person offering up the serving of self-contemplation, but Silver Bullets’ introspection feels earned. Knowledge of Swanberg’s earlier films isn’t necessary, though it feeds into the startling unpleasantness with which he characterizes the “Swanberg” on screen, who complains about not caring about his films—his main motivation for making them being, essentially, to get closer to girls he likes. Because Sheil offers the primary point of view, we’re given an uncommonly sympathetic, if uncompromising, look at the place of an actor in a world of would-be auteurs—the allure of having a camera and director’s attention, and the acknowledgment that you’re still just a part of someone else’s vision.
Silver Bullets splinters into an ending that isn’t entirely satisfying, though a prologue and epilogue suggest these issues of control and the line between pretense and reality continue throughout one’s creative life. An early scene in which a character watches an interview with the late David Foster Wallace all but invites accusations of hubris, but the comparison it demands is one of searching for fulfillment in one’s art. As the film’s inward-gazing meta-commentary insists, all you’re going to find in a mirror is yourself.