The first feature film by Jay and Mark Duplass, The Puffy Chair, chronicled a fragile twentysomething relationship and, as such, fell into a subgenre of DIY movies about young-ish people struggling with adulthood (sort of like Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming but without a tripod). Baghead, their follow-up, treads similar ground, and flirts with a heavy level of self-reflexivity: This time, the twentysomethings are all actors and aspiring filmmakers. Then again, most mumblecore movies are full of vaguely artistic aspirations; Baghead may only stand apart in so far as it contains no wannabe musicians.
The nonacting actors played by actual semi-nonacting actors are Chad (Steve Zissis), Matt (Ross Partridge), Michelle (Greta Gerwig), and Catherine (Elise Miller); neither Duplass brother appears onscreen this time, although Zissis looks a bit like Mark, who starred in Chair. In the film's prologue, the foursome decides to hole up in a cabin for a weekend and hash out a screenplay for a movie -- starring them, naturally.
The source of this inspiration is not entirely unified; Matt seems galvanized (or at least stirred) by the indie success of a casual acquaintance, while Chad believes that being cast as Michelle's onscreen boyfriend could be the quickest, most painless method of becoming her actual boyfriend. Michelle is not unlike Gerwig's title character in Hannah Takes the Stairs: Twitchy, with a childlike mix of passiveness and giggles, but gregarious enough to sexually captivate dudes of a certain age.
All four actors give us a lot of information with their darting eyes and wandering conversation. We see that Michelle may have eyes for someone else, and that the perpetually unamused Catherine may be ready for a more normal life -- she looks, at least, like the most successful of the bunch inasmuch as she has an agent and some traditional good looks, but cracks of neediness are beginning to show, from her drunken comments to the roots of her hair.
Considering they're staying at a cabin in the woods, it takes an undue amount of time for the gang to focus on maybe scripting a horror movie; only Matt can see beyond a fog of hormones, and needs to squint to do so. The premise they do eventually arrive at -- a guy with a bag on his head lurking in the shadows, like a cross between Blair Witch and The Strangers -- is a little vague, but easy to replicate on a budget. Maybe too easy.
From this point, I won't reveal more except that Baghead itself toys with the horror genre, sometimes with disturbing effectiveness; it has a couple of jumps that do actually compete with the likes of The Strangers. But the movie's most ingenious touch is the way it blends interpersonal tension and horror-movie tension without resorting to the usual estranged-couple or frisky-hotties dynamics. The characters simply move from one tense perch to another; the creepiest parts of Baghead allow Chad, Matt, Michelle, and Catherine to act on the discomfort that stays just below the surface in their quieter scenes.
Though they show a greater interest in other genres, the Duplass brothers aren't more visually advanced than their mumblecore peers. They don't have an eye for everyday beauty like Aaron Katz (Quiet City), and some of the fly-on-the-wall techniques -- onscreen focus adjustments, quick zooms, and other handheld standbys -- start to feel like exactly that: techniques to simulate and call attention to reality rather than observe it.
Their sense of story, though, however talky and handheld, is deceptively strong, and Baghead trips through comedy, drama, and horror with a casualness that belies its craft. As striking as many of these twentysomething experiments have been, the Duplasses seem most fully prepared to take what they've learned into their thirties, forties, and beyond (they're also apparently the only mumblecore filmmakers disciplined enough to never indulge in long, pointless sequences set at a friend-of-a-friend's quasi-random party). This isn't a smart-alecky movie about movies; the bits of laughter, scares, and drama come from an honest, uncomfortable place. The actors earn their screams.
I come in peace.