Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013) begins in media res, advancing with the tension of stretching a coiled slinky into garrotting wire, and ceasing on a moment of violence that snaps the instrument back into a thick, tangled wad. In most revenge stories, this moment would represent a climax, but here it’s just another link in a chain of retributive violence which extends far beyond the film’s narrative bookends. As events unwind, Blue Ruin becomes a terrifying portrait of how real-world vengeance is enacted – sloppily and bloodily, by ordinary people who, in their sadness and anger, have made the worst of a terrible situation.
For his third feature, Green Room, Saulnier opens in a lower gear – in fact, no gear at all, as the car carrying punk rock foursome The Ain’t Rights has careened off the road without any gas. After syphoning a parked-up truck, the band head to Seaside, Oregon, where an awkward radio interview and botched gig put the final nail into the coffin of their Northwest tour. But, offered a make-up gig in outer Portland, they hit the road once again for a sleazy warehouse-cum-club run by neo-Nazis. Realising that their sophomoric image stands out like a blistered thumb in a uniform sea of straps and boots, the band give their set its all, and make for a quick exit. But bad turns to worse when bassist Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) accidentally walks in on a murder, and the group – also including vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole) – are held hostage.
It’s a wicked siege premise, pitting these hardcore poseurs against a real-world version of the droogs aped in their act, and forcing them to live through the reality of a performative violence inherent in its aesthetic. So when The Ain’t Rights open their set with a cover of The Dead Kennedys “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” it’s a shallow, reactionary gesture, and revealed as a totally spineless one when they kowtow to their hosts and accept a paltry fee anyway. In allowing pragmatism to trump politics, the band expose their vulnerability and naiveté to a highly organised faction motivated solely by nationalist rhetoric – a decision they’ll really regret once hunting dogs and machetes enter the already-fraught equation.
Saulnier leeches tension from this scenario through incremental changes to the conditions of the room, and as their squabbling and strategising drains the environment of oxygen, The Ain’t Rights are nudged to the brink of clammy desperation. But as the air leaks out, style bleeds in, and DP Sean Porter laces darker textures into the film’s title-appropriate palette – its oily greens are stained with streaks of black, grey, and red. As the action escalates, and the band creep out into the club to fight, Saulnier and Porter devise a chilling, Carpenter-esque set-piece which raises the tension and colour scheme into an insane fugue – filtered through a swell of extinguisher smoke, Green Room’s entire aesthetic becomes a clash of warring tribal colours.
Unleashed in fits and spurts, the violence of Green Room is unrelentingly brutal, and realised with some of the best gore effects since the SOV boom of the ’80s and ’90s. But unlike those pictures, and a majority of slashers from the period, Mike Marino’s effects are used to emphasise the fragility of bodies and the folly of violence. As in Blue Ruin, Saulnier justifies the cruelty of the action by immersing us into the panicked pov of his protagonists, and his scenario unfurls with a terrifying emotional and intuitive logic which challenges our sense of morality and justice. It’s clear that nobody in the film – even the Nazis – enjoys violence, but given the circumstance it’s a necessary, or even obligatory course of action.
It’s this streamlined cause/effect structure, packed into a lean 84 minutes, which makes Green Room one of the best thrillers of recent years. I can only hope that Saulnier keeps ploughing this darkly comic field for more offbeat tales of murder and revenge – he’s slowly becoming a specialist in an all-too-rare class of brusque, no-bullshit genre cinema.
DVD extras include a generic ten-minute making-of featurette and theatrical trailer.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat
Runtime: 95 mins
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