Baghead (Sony Pictures Classics) opens on a scene of four friends at an L.A. film festival who are raptly watching a mediocre-looking indie called We Are Naked. Inspired by what they regard as a masterpiece, the foursome takes off for an isolated cabin, where they plan to spend the weekend writing and shooting their own horror movie to jump-start their acting careers. They brainstorm an appropriately low-budget villain: a guy lurking in the woods with a paper bag over his head. But just as the friends get going on their script, the "baghead" begins making real, if unverifiable, appearances. Is there a knife-wielding psycho on the loose? Or is someone (maybe one of the friends themselves) just messing with their, and our, heads?
If you've seen The Blair Witch Project,or Diary of the Dead, or any of the standard-issue slasher movies that those projects spoofed, you probably think you know what's coming next. There'll be self-aware show-business satire punctuated by bouts of screaming gore, all culminating in a harrowing chase through the forest and the survival of the prettiest. But directors Mark and Jay Duplass, brothers whose first film was the 2004 cult hit The Puffy Chair, are cannier than that. They've made a movie about trickery that neatly tricks its viewers into laughing, then screaming, then laughing again.
The quartet consists of the handsome alpha male Matt (Ross Partridge); his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Catherine (Elise Muller); his insecure buddy Chad (Steve Zissis); and Michelle, an unattached cutie who's the object of Chad's longing. The first act makes clear that these four are more than just passive Baghead-bait. They're complicated, needy, at times scheming people who communicate almost entirely through indirection. When Chad makes a pass at Michelle, she deflects him by playfully putting her hairclips in his hair; later, Matt forces Chad to repeat self-esteem-enhancing affirmations ("I am cute. I am funny.") even as he plans to steal Chad's girl.
Baghead's use of improvised dialogue and deliberately rough editing have led to its classification as a "mumblecore" film (an imprecise and condescending designation that must be getting on the last nerve of the genre's supposed originators, Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg). But the movie's concern with its characters' shifting alliances and petty vanities also evokes early John Sayles and, at times, Eric Rohmer. The last scene, in which those alliances get sorted out in unforeseen ways, pulls a nifty final trick on the audience. What we'd been watching all along as a campy horror spoof turns out to be a soulful little comedy about friendship, betrayal, and the fear of revealing who you really are—whether or not there's a grocery sack on your head.