If you’re reading and you haven’t seen “Blue Ruin,” then you shouldn’t be wasting your time here. If you have seen Jeremy Saulnier’s ridiculously tense revenge thriller, then you may also ask yourself why spend the time here since as you already know Saulnier is a filmmaker who constructs his works like Russian nesting dolls and it’s best not even to get a peek at the top layer. However, if we must, the writer/director’s third film “Green Room” is a more than worthy follow-up to his breakthrough, exhibiting perhaps an even greater sense of control over a story about a situation that goes horribly wrong.
Thankfully, I managed to walk into almost completely cold, unaware that Alia Shawkat was in the film beforehand and not realizing that was Imogen Poots onscreen until halfway through, despite her being introduced before “Green Room”‘s premiere in Toronto. However, I knew within seconds of it starting that this was Saulnier’s film through and through. In just three films, the writer/director has taken two very simple refutations of genre film tropes – a dismissal of the unstoppable killing machines we’ve come to see in all blood-soaked endeavors and the idea an audience needs to know everything upfront – to create something unpredictable precisely because it’s entirely identifiable human behavior, as if you and your friends stumbled into the middle of a horror film.
When “Green Room” starts, you’re not even sure where you are when you first see Pat (Anton Yelchin) wake up, tucked into what’s revealed to be a van parked in the middle of a cornfield. That turns out to be the least of the problems facing Pat and his bandmates in a down-on-their-luck metal act, who find out when they do reach their next destination that the alternative radio station deejay who booked their gig was let go by his community college. Still, he offers the band an opportunity in another town – to play for a crowd of skinheads for the princely sum of $350. Given their predicament, they ask “how right wing are they?” instead of “how the hell do I get out of here?” and soon find themselves in a dressing room adorned with a confederate flag. As it turns out, they become quite familiar with that room after their set when Pat attempts to retrieve a cell phone the band’s bassist (Shawkat) leaves behind and discovers a young woman with a knife in her head, surrounded by her killers hovering over the body and no one is allowed to leave – or as the club’s operators clarify in one of Saulnier’s typically wicked and exacting bits of dialogue, “We’re not keeping you, you’re just staying.”
Despite the truly nasty situation that unfolds as Darcy (Patrick Stewart) the neo-Nazi owner of the club steps in to find a way to wash his hands of everyone involved in the murder and the band plots potential ways out of the dressing room that has only one closely watched door, you wouldn’t dare leave it yourself as Saulnier keeps upping the ante and throws off peculiar details that keep the mind reeling in the rare moments where the action stops. With cinematographer Sean Porter (“Kumiko the Treasure Hunter”) bringing a elegance to all this madness, “Green Room” finds unexpected angles in every way possible, elevating a story that might seem a better fit for a sleazy grindhouse to high art with all its inventive camera moves visually and moral complexities substantively. (It almost feels as if Saulnier has remade his down and dirty first film “Murder Party” after finding his voice on “Blue Ruin.”) This is reflected in casting as well, giving each of its main actors a part unlike anything they’ve done before that plays to their strengths, particularly Poots, who emerges from the shadows as a friend of the dead girl who gradually becomes an ally of the band. Saulnier even rethinks his “Blue Ruin” lead Macon Blair, who appears as the club employee who carries out Darcy’s wishes yet seems to grow skeptical of them.
The result is delightfully 50 kinds of fucked up, but otherwise difficult to classify – more grizzly than the average action film and more nuanced and meticulous than the usual horror film. Perhaps that’s for the best since Saulnier’s films clearly aren’t meant to be discussed before seeing them. Afterwards, you won’t be able to stop talking them.
“Green Room” will be distributed in the US by A24, who has yet to set a release date. It will next play Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.