On making art and talking about making art, improvisational redundancy, and the surprising elasticity of Mark Duplass' screen presence
Creep 2 The Orchard
Director: Patrick Brice
Screenplay: Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice
Starring: Mark Duplass and Desiree Akhavan
Not rated / 1 hour, 20 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
There's a disconcerting sincerity to the way Mark Duplass goes on about "art." He throws it around so casually.
Specifically, I'm talking about his serial-killer character in Creep 2 - "Josef" the first time we met him, this time having taken on the name of his Creep victim, Aaron - but it could just as easily apply to Duplass himself. Or perhaps, to put it a better way, the two are not mutually exclusive.
"Aaron" doesn't just see the documentation of his killings as part of his hobby or his vocation, but as part of his art. When he solicits a new videographer (once again via Craigslist) to document his latest piece of art (his words), he proceeds to behave with both the commanding oversight of a would-be auteur and the petulant temperament of a diva actor. When he's in a better mood, he compliments the art (again, his word) of his new collaborator, Sara (Desiree Akhavan). (Her art, by the way, is a scantly viewed documentary web series called Encounters.) And he talks about the great piece of art the two are going to make together.
If you've seen enough of Duplass either in movies - as writer, actor, director (along with his brother Jay), or some combination of the three - or in interviews and speeches, this rhetoric is not unfamiliar. At times he can make "making art" seem so offhand as to be quotidian. What did you do this morning? Oh, you know, the usual - ate some breakfast, fed the dog, went for a run, took a shower, brushed my teeth, made some art, checked my emails, took out the trash ...
In his 2008 feature Baghead, barely two minutes have passed before a character - a filmmaker, incidentally - has said the phrase "making a piece of art." Which leads to a narrative about a group of struggling actors deciding to make a piece of art (a movie) ostensibly about themselves. Lynn Shelton's Humpday, whose story Duplass helped develop and improvise on set, revolves around him and an old friend deciding to make a sex tape because they believe, in doing so, they will be making a great piece of art. (Many discussions about the piece of art they will be making, and why it is a piece of art and why they want to make this piece of art, ensue.) And similar conversations and narrative conceits come up once again in Creep and, in particular, Creep 2. (For the record, I like Humpday and I like Baghead, which to my eyes remains the Duplass Brothers' best effort to date.)
The problem isn't necessarily that he's landed on a variation of the same conceit multiple times, but that in the wrong setting it reveals an artist who too often uses the fact of his own (repeatedly self-proclaimed) artistry as the primary context for his characters' existence. It's as if he takes "write what you know" too seriously as an ethos. Reiterating, as he so often does, that he is making art can come across as desperate. When his characters (whose dialogue he improvises) start making identical statements and dropping the same anecdotes that Duplass himself has used in real-life interviews, the distinction between the two starts to fade. (To cite just one example, Creep 2's "Aaron" mentions an anecdote about Francis Ford Coppola that the Duplasses have previously repeated in interviews. It's about Coppola's quest to make something truly original. Aaron believes he is on the same quest.)
All of that is basically fine, and even part of the point, in a directly or implicitly meta film about the creative process, or anything squarely rooted in lived experience. But is the best or most interesting thing to do with a friendly serial-killer scenario to simply make him a veiled stand-in for Duplass himself? A veiled stand-in for him and his collaborators in something like Baghead makes a lot of sense. Here? It's a crutch. It comes off as an idea he simply falls back on when he can't think of anything better to do with a premise. Low-budget filmmakers making movies about low-budget filmmakers making movies is not a formula that has a lot of flexibility. It's just the Droste Effect in cinematic form.
This particular tendency of his dovetails with the most common structural conceit of found-footage movies: Making it about a film crew (or solo cameraperson) that's shooting a documentary. It's an idea that, like most other features of this format, doesn't offer nearly as much utility as its prevalence would suggest. That being said, Creep 2 does a better job justifying the format than did its predecessor, which - especially in its back half - featured some of the most inexplicable, nonsensical use of first-person camerawork I've ever seen. La la la, here I am frantically trying to escape from a psychopath in this extremely well-lit house but I'm gonna go ahead and carry this camera around perfectly at eye level *while* frantically escaping.
As tired as the visual grammar of Creep 2 is, it never falls into the same traps as the first one did. It seems like it's thought-through in a smarter way, specifically avoiding going in directions that would undermine its style.
Behind the camera once again is Patrick Brice, who seems to be in his own kind of rut. He has directed three feature films and an episode of the Duplasses' HBO anthology series Room 104, and all four of those are about people being invited to strangers' houses (or in one case, a hotel room) and growing increasingly uncomfortable at the mysterious strangers' disturbing behavior. The four even seem to rely on the same moves - like the shocked protagonist being taken off guard by unexpected nudity. After both installments of the burgeoning Creep franchise, his Duplass-penned Room 104 episode and the enjoyably cringy sex comedy The Overnight, I'm hoping he, at some point, has another scenario in mind.
The best both Creep movies have going for them is Duplass' unnerving performance. The character makes for an unusually strong application of his screen persona, which is almost aggressively affable and friendly, but heavily self-conscious and even a bit shifty. That works perfectly for Aaron/Josef - who proclaims himself the world's most prolific serial killer that no one knows about - whose effectiveness at his line of work is built on appearing as normal, nice, harmlessly weird guy. Duplass plays him as both extremely gregarious and a bit of an over-sharer, whose stories and explanations you can never be totally sure you can trust. He could just be an overly friendly guy with a sort of reserved, anxious desperation for human contact; or he could be a psychopath who's just super chill about it. The performance is completely effective because he's not playing it all that differently from the way he'd play a more typical role.
His co-star this time around, Desiree Akhavan, is equal to the task, playing Sara as unflappable, street-smart and deeply empathetic. (Incidentally, Akhavan - the writer/director/star of 2015's Appropriate Behavior - is a better filmmaker than either Brice or Duplass.) But even as Duplass' persona works like a charm throughout Creep 2, his material fails him. Which is to say, he fails his material. Perhaps making a low-budget art film in which a character - who speaks very much like yourself about art and the creative process - is making a low-budget art film is an idea that should be put on the shelf for a while. Bigger picture, it doesn't really matter how much he thinks about art, talks about art, or makes art - just whether he makes better art.