Joe Swanberg’s ‘Marriage Material’ Deftly Observes Young Adulthood

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CHICAGO – Ever since stumbling upon his 2005 directorial debut, “Kissing on the Mouth,” I’ve been deeply transfixed by the cinema of Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg. There’s a startling honesty to his work that is unmatched by many of his peers, as well as a near-obsessive desire to capture the “truth” in his fictional characters. He never shies away from sexual frankness or raw intimacy if they are required to serve the story.
 
Though Swanberg earned some of the best reviews of his career for his 2009 effort, “Alexander the Last,” the director later admitted that he felt uncomfortably pressured by the level of expectations surrounding the project. The experience made him realize that he was more interested in making micro-budget films with close friends and collaborators. 2011 marked a creative renaissance for Swanberg, who premiered a series of painstakingly personal films that directly confronted questions raised by various viewers, such as how acts of intimacy can be “faked” onscreen.
 
The viral release of Swanberg’s 55-minute film, “Marriage Material” is meant to coincide with the first installment of the Joe Swanberg: Collected Films 2011 subscription, which includes four new movies accompanied by a passel of rare extra features (my favorite being a vinyl 45 soundtrack album). “Material” is bound to entice cinephiles into checking out the auteur’s other recent work, but it also succeeds on its own terms as a standalone triumph that illustrates the evolution of Swanberg’s artistic voice. At the beginning of his career, Swanberg’s gaze was more restless, resulting in handheld photography that worked better on a small screen. His first post-”Alexander” effort, “Uncle Kent,” was the perfect transitional film, since it fused handheld segments with more polished “locked-in frames” meant to resemble a graphic novel. I found them more evocative of the long takes utilized by Béla Tarr or Michael Haneke, yet Swanberg doesn’t have the cold detachment of a passive observer. With a perceptive eye similar to that of Rodrigo García, Swanberg focuses on his characters for prolonged periods of time, capturing the nuances of their behavior until we feel as if we are in the same room with them. Such an approach requires absolute believability on the part of the actors, and that is exactly what Caroline White and Kentucker Audley supply in “Material.”

Caroline White and Kentucker Audley star in Joe Swanberg’s Marriage Material.
Caroline White and Kentucker Audley star in Joe Swanberg’s Marriage Material.
Photo credit: Swanberry, LLC

As in all of his films, Swanberg mines the drama in everyday occurrences. In this case, it’s the unexpected repercussions that befall a young couple after babysitting their friends’ seven-month-old son (played by Swanberg’s real-life son, Jude). Emily (White) is surprised to find her maternal instincts ignited by the presence of a toddler, and is turned on by watching her longtime boyfriend, Andrew (Audley) play the role of father. Instead of veering into diaper-changing slapstick, the film allows glimmers of humor to organically emerge from the character’s awkward attempts at articulating their feelings. Audley, who earned raves for his performance in Dustin Guy Defa’s “Bad Fever,” speaks in the soft yet firm voice of a man so immersed in his work that the outside world has become a nuisance (he’s also, appropriately enough, a Béla Tarr fan). He looks at the little tyke as if he were a mere “Eraserhead”-like grotesquery threatening to get in the way of his writing deadlines. Yet for the film’s first half, the couple keeps their thoughts to themselves, though Emily does confide in a friend (Amanda Crawford) about the emotional tug “on her uterus.”

On the heels of their success with their funny and illuminating co-directorial effort, “Autoerotic,” Swanberg and Adam Wingard once again prove to be ideal collaborators. Wingard’s photography in “Marriage” is elegant and observant in its framing. There’s a fifteen-minute shot of Emily and Andrew in bed, as they finally open the floodgates on their repressed insecurities and desires revolving around adult life. A single cutaway shot observes the photos dangling from their spinning fan, in which the lovers are each confined in their own space (this visual motif emerges again in the protracted final sequence). I was reminded of a similarly paced shot in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” that regards an encounter between two opposing viewpoints. What initially appeared to be a close relationship is gradually revealed to be a union between two strangers. When Emily comes clean about her vision of imminent motherhood, Andrew replies, “It’s not like an urgent thing, is it?” Some critics have chided Swanberg for his inarticulate characters, but the dialogue never strikes a false note (partly because the “script” is credited to the entire ensemble). Swanberg and his cast have an ear for the ways in which people naturally express themselves. It’s so much more interesting than if Swanberg had used his characters as hyper-articulate vessels for his own beliefs.

“Marriage Material” is really about what’s being conveyed between the words in each scene, and the silences during Emily and Andrew’s central conversation take on an increasing sadness. White and Audley superbly portray the heartbreak of lovers finding their once unbreakable bond suddenly drifting away. There’s a moment toward the end where White elicits a soft, wistful laugh that speaks more volumes than any dialogue ever could. It’s easy to predict where the film is heading, and there’s little suspense in the couple’s revelations to one another. But it’s the subtlety with which Swanberg handles the material that makes it so potent. This is a simple story, sublimely told.

‘Marriage Material’ stars Caroline White, Kentucker Audley, Joe Swanberg, Kris Swanberg, Jude Swanberg, Adam Wingard and Amanda Crawford. It was directed by Joe Swanberg. It is available for free on Vimeo through January 31, 2012. See it at http://vimeo.com/34790491.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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