When writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore feature “Blue Ruin” debuted at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, it caused quite the stir. While much of that tense genre exercise stunned audiences, the finale hit a sour note with its “Wild Bunch”-style orgy of violence that felt like an aimless, cacophonous rampage.
It’s all the more heartening, then, that in almost every way Saulnier has upped his game with “Green Room,” his bloody, impressive follow-up.
This movie also borrows from Peckinpah’s school of dark revenge, but this time recalls the likes of the more sordid “Straw Dogs.” However, this isn’t simply some pastiche drawn from different movies to yield a collage of references, but rather very much its own film, and a remarkable one at that.
We’re introduced to the members of the hardcore punk band Ain’t Rights on the road traveling to their next gig. When opportunity sours, they’re forced to participate in a matinee at a decidedly “right wing, or maybe very left” venue, a set that will pay a much-needed $350. The punks-vs-skinheads vibe takes a musically provocative turn when they thrash out a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” which doesn’t exactly appeal to the room. While this spirited rendition riles up some in the crowd, the rest of the gig goes well, and they return to their off-stage lounge that provides the film with its title.
This is where the story takes a sharp turn, immediately thrusting the protagonists into a horrifying conundrum. Lesser versions of the ensuing mayhem would find the characters making rash (or dumb) decisions, but Saulnier’s script is too smart for that. That’s perhaps the most refreshing thing about the next chapter of the plot – on every side of the increasingly dangerous situation, the hapless protagonists never do something that comes across as trite or unthinking.
The film’s siege motif is constructed in a puzzle-like way, with the various pieces and machinations of attacker and defender swapping back-and-forth throughout. Despite the complexity of the altercations, the work never loses sight of the key components of narrative, a credit to editor Julia Bloch and Saulnier’s refined script.
The cast is uniformly excellent, including “Blue Ruin” lead Macon Blair. Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, Joe Cole and Mark Webber form a strong ensemble, and there’s the towering presence of club owner Patrick Stewart, his regal comportment and bald pate cutting a particularly sinister figure in this context.
Production-wise, the project marks a step up as well. Lensed by Sean Porter, the cinematography maintains a claustrophobic dimension without seeming repetitive. The physical makeup and effects are inventive, allowing moments of gore that are unsettling while avoiding gratuitous extremes. The music is effectively moody, and even the graffiti and posters in the walls feel completely in keeping, while one can practically smell the sweat and feel the sticky walls of the dank venue.
This very much is a thinking person’s thriller, one that treats its audience with respect while still managing to shock and surprise. By the director’s own admission at a Q&A following its premiere, “Green Room” borrows more from war movie tropes than horror ones: the onscreen battle is both visceral and raw. With visual allusions to “Apocalypse Now,” there’s a clear journey into the heart of darkness for many of its characters.
The film is at its best when it refuses to linger, avoiding sentimentality or heavy-handedness in favor of unrelenting drama. Yet as things go from bad to worse, Saulnier displays noticeable restraint, avoiding the pitfall of letting things spiral away from the core themes. The final shot balances nicely with the first one, a consistency far too rare in films of this type.
As a robust drama, “Green Room” holds its own while never shying away from being gruesome or provocative. Though the level of violence may well leave some queasy, this is a colorful and effective work that deserves an audience wider than just the usual genre film crowd.
Littered with clever dialogue, a beautifully constructed narrative, as well as moments that shift between the energizing and sheer terror, there are a slew of endearing qualities worth sifting through. Brash and haunting in equal measures, “Green Room” may be no masterpiece — but it’s the closest achievement in Saulnier’s career to merit that consideration.
“Green Room” premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.