Baghead (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Baghead Poster

The marketing goal with Baghead is to turn it into another The Blair Witch Project: a horror film where the terror is more psychological than physical and where the characters spend a lot more time chatting and arguing than running for their lives. The problem with Baghead isn't that it's cheaply made but that it's sloppily composed. Even under the most undiscriminating scrutiny, its logic doesn't hold up. The acting varies from awful to sub-par. And the direction celebrates the film's low budget. Baghead contains individual moments that work effectively but, when assembled into a whole, everything crumbles like a poorly stacked house of cards.

The film's premise is fascinating and makes for a great trailer. (Although the comedic element, which is played up in the 120-second preview, is virtually absent from the final cut. This is not an intentionally funny motion picture, although it achieves some amusement value by playing with horror movie conventions.) Baghead is about art imitating reality imitating art, or something like that. The film-within-the-film allows the writing/directing pair of Jay and Mark Duplass to comment not only on the filmmaking world in general but about how Baghead was assembled. Some of this stuff is clever but not, as it turns out, clever enough to form the foundation of an 80-minute feature.

Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Michelle (Greta Gerwig), and Catherine (Elise Muller) are four second-tier actors who have begun to despair of ever getting a big break. So, taking matters into their hands, they decide to develop and shoot their own low-budget indie. The hope is that it will get them noticed and catapult their careers into orbit. One weekend, they go on a road trip to a house in the middle of the woods where they can pal around, drink, go swimming, and start the screenwriting process. On the first night, Michelle has a bad dream in which she sees a man wearing a bag over his head watching her from the woods. The next night, he's in her room. No one is sure whether this "Baghead" is an actual stalker or one (or more) of the four actors playing games.

The Duplasses get some mileage out of the inherent tension surrounding Baghead's identity. Through a series of not entirely credible contortions of the script, they keep us guessing until the last possible minute. This impinges on the movie's logic but it keeps us interested even as the banal dialogue threatens to put us to sleep. A lot of Baghead focuses on the four principles sitting around talking. What they say isn't terribly interesting. It's the kind of thing that reminds a viewer why "real" discourse in movies is not always preferable. I can't answer the question of whether these conversations were improvised in whole or in part but, if the awkward pauses and occasional stumbling over words are intended to intimate that, they succeed. The sexual tension among the characters is handled on a high school level. Chad likes Michelle but is too shy to ask her out. Catherine believes Matt is her soul-mate, which explains their 11-year on-and-off relationship. Matt thinks he has broken up with Catherine, but continues to cling to her. And Michelle, oblivious to Chad's crush, wants to sleep with Matt. Baghead tries to be as much about relationships as about the mysterious figure with the bag over his head, but not a lot of this stuff works. In the end, do we care if Chad and Michelle go out? Not really. Neither character is well enough developed for it to matter.

The acting is a big part of Baghead's problem. Three of the four protagonists are played by performers who do little to distinguish themselves. The fourth stands out, but for the wrong reasons. Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, and Elise Muller are adequate. None has a lot of experience, although Partridge has done a fair amount of TV and played the memorable role of "Curious Man" in the second Jurassic Park movie, and Muller was the "Waitress of Wisdom" in Vampire Lesbian Kickboxers. Sadly, Greta Gerwig doesn't live up to her co-stars' mediocre standards. She is fingers-on-the-blackboard awful, trying hard to hide a smile at inappropriate times and sounding drunk when Michelle isn't supposed to be. The best thing one can say about Gerwig is that she has really nice breasts, which she briefly displays (in what is arguably the movie's most creepy scene).

For all of Baghead's problems with writing and acting, the Duplass brothers milk tension out of some very basic setups, such as a silhouette in a darkened bedroom. There's also a nice little standoff in front of the house. On those occasions when Baghead works, it's almost possible to lose oneself in the moment, but it never lasts long enough to ignore how forgettable the majority of the movie is. And the film's final revelation provokes more questions than it answers and makes one question whether the filmmakers considered the stupidity of the "twist" before implementing it. Baghead's low budget can excuse a lot of things, including limited coverage and an unpolished look, but the lack of a honed screenplay is impossible to ignore or forgive.

Baghead (United States, 2008)

Director: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Cast: Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller, Jett Garner
Screenplay: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Cinematography: Jay Duplass
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1