Baghead (2008)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Baghead,” written and directed by brothers Jay & Mark Duplass, is an independent film that is both made on the cheap and delightfully aware of how cheap it is. It even opens with our main characters attending a film festival, where a micro-budget short film screened and its director gloats about his limited resources in making the film, right down to having his actors improvise their dialogue rather than provide them with a completed script… That is almost exactly how the Duplass Brothers managed to make “Baghead.”

This style of micro-budget filmmaking is commonly known as “mumblecore,” but if you listen to the Duplass Brothers’ audio commentary for the film, you’ll learn they don’t particularly care for that term.

Our main characters in “Baghead,” desperate actors looking to star in something, are inspired by this filmmaking method that they decide to rent a secluded cabin (in the woods, of course) and come up with a screenplay for a low-budget indie film in which they will all star. When they’re not working on ideas for the script, Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Catherine (Elise Miller), and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) do all the typical things young people do when they have a weekend to themselves in a cabin in the middle of nowhere—they get drunk, get high, pal around, go swimming, and then eventually collaborate on ideas. One night, Michelle has a nightmare about a killer with a bag over his head (a “baghead” killer, if you will), and this inspires Matt to write a horror script about this very concept.

What happens next requires a leap of faith the Duplass Brothers had to take for their audience to continue watching “Baghead” all the way to the end. It seems there really is a baghead lurking outside in the woods. In the film’s creepiest scene, he appears in Michelle’s room and watches as she flirts with who she thinks is Matt playing a game…and he just stands there, watches, and leaves. No one is sure whether it’s one of the four playing games or if there really is a stalker outside watching them…and with a bag over his head. What are the odds that there would actually turn out to be a baghead appearing around the same time these people start to write a script that features a baghead? Well, I won’t give away how this came to be, but it will either make or break the film for most people. It didn’t break it for me; if anything, it added more creativity than anything else.

“Baghead” has a wonderful amount of self-awareness, with art imitating life imitating art, as it comments on the world of filmmaking (particularly micro-budget filmmaking, in which “Baghead” belongs). The Duplass Brothers clearly love to create art and will do whatever it takes to do it with whatever they have. And they get clever mileage out of how they comment on how they even make their own film within said-film.

Of all four main actors, who were previously second-tier actors, only one managed to make it in the big time: Greta Gerwig. At the time, Gerwig was known for several films of this sort (she became known as “the Mumblecore Queen”) before she managed to break out, get more roles in bigger-budgeted indie films (at least, in comparison to “mumblecore” films) and mainstream movies, and even get recognition from Oscar for her directorial debut “Lady Bird.” But she started out with a bubbly, quirky personality that differentiated her from several of her peers. (Many critics had a problem with that—one of the critics of “Baghead” called her “fingernails-on-the-blackboard awful.”) I think she’s a delight in “Baghead”—not to slam her three co-stars, but Gerwig is the true star of the film. She’s funny and charming throughout the whole film.

Much of the film is improvised heavily, with many awkward pauses as the characters try to figure out what to say to one another and find ways to make it feel as real as possible. While it is grating at times, I admire the effort to insert realism into the mix. (That’s generally what “mumblecore” is all about—making the most out of minimal material.) The clumsy handheld camerawork adds to it as well. Though, I will say a lot of what the characters say is not particularly interesting, and I’m constantly waiting for something more juicy to come along and break the monotony. I do care about whether or not Chad and Michelle will end up together, but I’m not sure I needed the passive-aggressiveness of a potential love-triangle to make things more complicated.

I have yet to mention the tension that comes with the very real possibility that there is a baghead walking around outside, leading to a “Blair Witch” style of a sequence that leads to our characters roaming through the woods in fear. By that point, I was comfortable with the way the film was going. The Duplass Brothers were able to milk tension out of the simplest situations, and it truly works.

“Baghead” is essentially a low-budget horror-comedy, and the Duplass Brothers clearly had fun making it. Many people will have trouble with the final twist in the final act, but I didn’t really have much of a problem with it. I was simply appreciative that they didn’t go for any of the easier ways out of a bind.

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