There are five named female characters in Joe Swanberg's 24 Exposures, and all of them spend significant portions of the movie ... well, exposed.
Actually, most of the unnamed female characters wind up in various states of undress as well, a fact that's part of a point Swanberg seems to be trying to make about objectification of women in art. In 24 Exposures, though, he straddles the line between criticizing that objectification and engaging in it himself.
A prolific director of improvisational microbudget indies about relationships, Swanberg enters more clearly delineated genre territory here, with a grisly thriller undoubtedly inspired by recent collaborations with horror filmmakers like Ti West, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett.
The latter two take on the lead roles here: Wingard plays Billy, a fetish photographer whose subject of choice is recently deceased women — or, rather, models elaborately made up and posed to re-create scenes of murder, sexual violence and suicide. Barrett is Michael, a depressed cop who catches a case investigating the actual murder of one of Billy's subjects.
That mystery plot is really window dressing, though; for the most part, Swanberg is still focused on the realm of the interpersonal. Much of the film is concerned with the complicated dynamic between Billy and his girlfriend, Alex (Caroline White), who helps organize and conceptualize his photo shoots, as well as occasionally inviting models like Callie (Sophia Takal) back home to join them in bed. When they arrive at those threesomes together, it's all smooth sailing, but when Billy takes a liking to Rebecca (Helen Rogers), a waitress he convinces to do some shoots with them, jealousy ensues — both for Alex and for Rebecca's boyfriend, Greg (Mike Brune).
Michael, meanwhile, has just been dumped by his girlfriend, an event that drives him to see what it feels like to put the barrel of his gun into his mouth. But when he begins the investigation, he becomes fascinated with Billy's seeming magnetism for all these women, and how that works within his relationship with Alex.
Last year, Swanberg broke free of the quick and dirty aesthetic that has dominated his output with Drinking Buddies, a film that showed that his penchant for loose improvisation could work within the context of a more visually polished, more sturdily structured narrative. 24 Exposures finds the director back in his previous mode, with a thoroughly ugly digital sheen and slipshod lighting, and a feeling that every scene was captured in one take before they hurriedly moved on to the next.
The result isn't fresh and realistic, though; it's clumsy and stilted. Improvised dialogue can work wonderfully if the actors have a solid feel for their characters, but everyone here seems rushed and uncomfortable. Barrett's only emotional note is sullen, while Brune plays Greg as a caricature of the jealous and abusive boyfriend, one that would feel flimsy and unconvincing in a low-budget domestic-violence PSA.
The apparent lack of preparation or directorial notes is particularly problematic for Wingard. The story needs his character to be wildly charismatic; we need to see why so many beautiful women are so willing to gleefully undo their bra straps for him, not just professionally but personally. But Wingard's Billy is hesitant and mumbly, his interactions with others typified by a falsely self-effacement or a thoroughly icky leer. This guy has creep written all over him.
Whatever examination of artistic objectification Swanberg intended gets lost in the unstructured mess of this exercise. And if that examination is meant to be self-directed — he's no stranger to criticisms over the casual nudity in his previous films — one hopes that Billy isn't how he sees himself. In any case, the message is as muddled and rambling as the dialogue, and shoehorning it all into the shell of a dull pay-cable erotic thriller does it no favors, either.
That murder mystery may just be the lure to draw audiences into the relationship drama, but it's still the primary plot of the film, and thrillers demand a tighter rein than Swanberg seems willing to apply. In a genre that demands tension, 24 Exposures is nothing but slack.