It's hard, sometimes, to be a movie critic. A critic is supposed to be objective; discerning and shrewd, sure, but objective. He or she should know what a moviegoer will be expecting out of a movie when they buy a ticket, and he or she should judge the movie on how well it meets or exceeds those expectations. But when half the charm of a movie is in the story of the actors and filmmakers themselves, it can be hard for a critic to know what somebody with little prior knowledge of the film will think.
Such is the case with Baghead, the newest release from writers/directors/producers Mark and Jay Duplass. Baghead is the story of four struggling (read: failing) actors who go to the woods for a weekend to try and write a screenplay that will make them all famous. In the beginning, they drink and laugh and crush on each other, but when they start seeing a man with a bag over his head outside their windows, things take a turn for the creepy.
I can say with confidence that, even standing on its own, Baghead is a good movie. The storyline moves effortlessly from being a bumbling comedy about four nobodies in a clumsy, frantic love quadrangle to being legitimately scary. The camera work -- the entire movie was filmed on a camcorder, and it shows -- lends a compelling sense of realism to the film, and the performances are spot on and tremendously natural. But that's where Baghead's backstory starts to become entangled with the film itself: the performances are natural because the actors are playing themselves. Because Baghead is not really a horror film about a guy with a bag on his head; it's a meta-film, about the difficulties of making an independent film, and of being poor and ignored in a world of the rich and famous. Baghead is a movie made by guys nobody knows, starring actors nobody knows, about actors nobody knows making a movie nobody will see.
The film gets even more meta when you take into account the fact that the movie the characters are trying to write is a horror film about a guy with a bag on his head, and that the Baghead guy they thought they saw is actually a friend of theirs, who is working in tandem with one of the characters to make a movie about four people being stalked by a guy with a bag on his head. So, let's reiterate: The Duplass brothers are indie filmmakers who made an indie film about actors trying to write an indie film, but who are actually the subject of another indie film without knowing it. Get it?
I did, but, then, I read the press release, so I knew who the filmmakers were and what the goal of their movie was. Though I enjoyed trying to pick my way through the self-referential mess that is Baghead, I found myself wondering if people who didn't know that backstory would have any idea what was going on. My ultimate answer to myself was yes, the movie does a good enough job explaining itself that you don't need to know all about it to enjoy it, or even to appreciate the levels of filmmaking commentary that exist within it.
Baghead is a movie that has a bit to say, about the benefits and downfalls of guerilla filmmaking, but it's also an exaltation of the independent style, with a camera that never stays quite still and four terrific performances from four actors you may never see again. It's fun, it's funny, it's just a little scary, and it ends exactly the way it should. Though hidden at first from the untrained eye, Baghead reveals itself to be a love letter to the indie film, and it?s a joyous thing to watch.