Initially, Baghead feels like a conventional mumblecore movie, steeped in the movement’s understated naturalism and twentysomething solipsism. Then the Bros. Duplass (The Puffy Chair) play a neat trick, taking a narrative turn into home invasion horror. Think Hannah Gets Pushed Down the Stairs. But Baghead succeeds where other genre fusion films fail because its horror emerges organically from its drama; expertly entwined, they pick up each other’s slack.
Joe Swanberg’s muse, the gifted Greta Gerwig, constitutes one fourth of Baghead’s ensemble cast of Hollywood wannabes who cloister themselves in a cabin for the weekend; they hope to write a movie and get as far as sketching a basic idea about a serial killer who wears a grocery bag on his head. Getting any work done, though, is accidental. While ostensibly about pre-production, the weekend in the woods is really about seduction: boozy bull sessions give rise, with discomfiting comedy, to romantic strikeouts and sexual insecurity. And then someone with a paper bag on his or her head shows up, wielding a knife. It’s mumbly meta-terror.
As the most effective horror movies often feature thoroughly developed characters, Baghead’s flirty interludes function nicely as exceptional slasher exposition. Most mumblecore protagonists, however, run the risk of being overdeveloped — and rapidly getting on the audience’s nerves. So the Duplasses persistently threaten to kill their struggling actors, manipulatively eliciting begrudging sympathy, even as some prove just how self-involved they are by continuing to play out their romantic dramas (and to masturbate) after their friends have mysteriously disappeared. If Jamie Lee Curtis’s pals were marked for death in the 80s by their promiscuity and substance abuse, the Duplasses’ characters invite their deserved misfortunes, though not their deaths, through their insistently insensitive navel-gazing.