In an inspired sequence early in 24 Exposures, the camera, suspended on a jib, travels from the branches of a tree to the surface of a shallow river, eventually revealing a woman’s half-naked body, tied up and apparently drowned. The camera lingers on the woman for a few seconds; suddenly, she gets up, and the camera pulls back further and higher, revealing a photographer, his assistants, and a gaggle of crew members and makeup artists.
In hindsight, this single-take switcheroo seems to be hinting at the arc that the film itself will eventually take. 24 Exposures begins as a loose—but still more or less conventional—slasher movie. Billy (You’re Next director Adam Wingard), a fetish photographer who specializes in eroticized death scenes, suspiciously under-reacts to the news that a model he booked for a photo shoot has turned up dead. However, as the movie trudges on, the layers of sexual, interpersonal, and creative frustration overwhelm the slasher/whodunit elements, and the central plotline becomes secondary and incoherent. The setting and supporting characters that typically root a slasher instead become the movie, and all tension and mystery dissipate. Background becomes foreground and vice versa.
24 Exposures is aware that its central mystery—who’s killing Billy’s models—is unsatisfying. In the film’s epilogue, director Joe Swanberg appears as a smarmy literary agent, telling a character who wants to turn the movie’s events into a true-crime memoir that “these kinds of things happen in real life, but they don’t make for compelling, commercial, uh… books.” He suggests fudging the facts to tie the characters together “in a cohesive, compelling way.”
This sort of self-deprecation is typical of Swanberg’s work. Though best known for directing ultra-low-budget, relationship-centric dramas, Swanberg has long shown an affinity for horror, acting in horror movies (You’re Next, V/H/S, and Ti West’s upcoming The Sacrament), casting horror directors in his films, and integrating elements of the genre into his 2011 psychosexual mood piece Silver Bullets. 24 Exposures marks his first feature-length foray into genre filmmaking, and often gives the sense it—shot almost a year before Swanberg’s 2013 mainstream breakthrough, Drinking Buddies—was meant as an experiment. As the agent’s words acknowledge, 24 Exposures isn’t entirely successful, though it is packed with ideas, alternately following and subverting conventions in a way that recalls Larry Cohen’s 1980s output—specifically Cohen’s snuff-film-themed Special Effects.
Deconstructions of eroticism and creative compulsion are Swanberg’s stock-in-trade, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 24 Exposures never allows its sex and nudity (it has plenty of both) to titillate. Instead, it either de-eroticizes its T&A by presenting it as work, or contextualizes it within emotional dynamics—among Billy, his girlfriend Alex (Caroline White), and models Callie (Sophia Takal) and Rebecca (Helen Rogers)—that emphasize anxiety over sexual tension. Further adding to the discomfort is a MIDI skin-flick score, which suggests cheesy sultriness even as the movie itself seems to undermine it.
In an extended drinking scene, Billy—who’s found a kindred spirit in severely depressed homicide detective Bamfeaux (Simon Barrett, Wingard’s regular screenwriter)—claims that he doesn’t know what motivates his work, saying that he finds violence aesthetically interesting but distasteful in real life. It’s clearly a dodge; when Billy first meets Rebecca, for instance, his attraction to her seems to be based on the fact that she’s sporting a painful-looking black eye. Swanberg puts the lie to the idea that art—specifically art that involves sex or violence—springs from nowhere. But, at the same time, he never goes deep enough into his protagonist’s psychology to answer the questions Billy himself is unwilling to answer.
Like countless Swanberg films (the prolific director has completed 17 features in less than a decade), 24 Exposures is populated by characters who are defined not by their actions, but by their unwillingness to act. The difference here is the presence of an exterior force—the murders—that makes Swanberg’s naturalistic style seem affected. The stasis of his characters is often intentionally frustrating (a sharply critical vein runs through his micro-budgeted works), but here, for the first time, it feels contrived. This has the effect of undercutting the movie’s otherwise astute observations about how people try to express their desires without admitting to having them.