The feeling I left the movie theater with after watching 2015’s Green Room was truly unique. The movie is about a punk rock band that fights for survival after witnessing a murder in the green room (waiting room for performers) of a clubhouse full of white supremacist neo-nazis. Such a straightforward story could easily be executed as either a slasher movie or a run-of-the-mill thriller, driven by its protagonist’s reactive choices under high-intensity stakes.
And yet, as is evident from his short but promising filmography, director Jeremy Saulnier has no interest in the obvious or the predictable. Learning from the masters of genre and auteur cinema, Saulnier has already managed to find his own singular voice in the art form.
Every artist is influenced in one way or another by a variety of voices. Steven Spielberg has said multiple times that his directing style was informed by the work of director John Ford. Paul Thomas Anderson has often admitted his debt to such greats as Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Stanely Kubrick and Robert Altman. Even David Fincher has been dubbed the new Hitchcock, as the influence of the late master of suspense is undeniable in most of Fincher’s offerings. However, while it’s fair to say that these modern directors have built their filmography by learning from their masters, they have also managed to craft an oeuvre that sets them apart in the process. For my money, Jeremy Saulnier is well on his way there as well.
2007 saw the release of this Virginia native’s debut movie Murder Party, a low-budget slasher-comedy, written, shot and directed by Saulnier.
It’s Halloween. A 30-year-old loner named Christopher happens upon an invitation to a murder party while he’s walking on the street. As he arrives at the location, an abandoned warehouse, he encounters a group of 5 “artists” who intend to murder him “in the name of art”. They are not the smartest bunch. Far from it. In fact, they are so dumb it quickly becomes clear that they don’t have the faintest idea of what they are doing. Things get out of control pretty fast as a feast of violence is unceremoniously dished out: specials include baseball bats, burned faces, and, oh yeah, a chainsaw.
Taking into account the absurdity of its plot, it’s easy to trace its lineage to the early works of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, particularly in Saulnier’s approach to displaying violence, which often results in somewhat comical albeit impressive set pieces of gruesome elements not uncommon within the slasher horror-comedy subgenre.
The characters’ dumb choices and the absurdist atmosphere created on camera are by far the most appealing aspects of Saulnier’s film debut. Its runtime of 88 minutes does have a few scenes of forceful tension. Still, you get what the ambitious up-and-coming director was going for and, for the most part, manages to successfully convey.
Six years later, Saulnier came back with the very effective and highly-acclaimed revenge thriller, Blue Ruin.
Not only did Saulnier direct the hell out of this movie, but he also served as its writer and cinematographer. The movie ended up being a big sensation in the film festival circuit in 2013. Critics and audiences alike called it “the best indie American film since Reservoir Dogs” and “one of the most effective neo-noir movies ever”.
As stated in an article published by the New York Times, “The movie evokes the bleak, deadpan humor of the Coen brothers and the stylish bloodshed of Quentin Tarantino, while delivering a pained vision of rural down-home Americana all its own”.
Blue Ruin tells the story of Dwight, a bearded beach bum who lives out of his car and from time to time trespasses houses to take a shower. One day he gets the news from a police officer that Wade Cleland, the guy who murdered his parents, is going to be released from prison in a couple of days. He’s advised to leave town, but, of course, he doesn’t heed. Instead, he steals a gun, but upon realizing that it’s locked he opts for ditching it. For all his resolve, Dwight doesn’t quite give off any “I’ve killed a man before” vibes. He ultimately finds a knife and clumsily stabs Cleland in a nightclub restroom, leaving a bloody, gory mess behind him when he tries to escape.
If this were your average revenge thriller, you’d have grounds to accuse me of having spoiled the ending of the movie. Yet the above-mentioned death occurs a mere 17 minutes into the film. The movie is more interested in the immediate consequences of that desperate act of vengeance, showing us, for example, how Dwight is then forced to go after each one of the Cleland family members in order to keep his once estranged sister safe from harm.
The way Saulnier guides us through Dwight’s journey is visual storytelling at its finest. It is filled with scenes in which scant or complete lack of dialogue allows powerful images to do the talking. Watching the movie, you can tell that the man behind the camera was now a more mature artist whose knowledge of his craft had grown exponentially since his last release.
Macon Blair’s superb performance as Dwight is an added bonus to Saulnier’s skills behind the camera. Their collaboration helped create an effective and truly authentic tone.
Saulnier borrows a leaf from the Coen brothers to achieve the confusion, awkwardness, and sheer clumsiness of his protagonist. He’s even stated that one of the main influences on Blue Ruin was the Coens’1984 film debut, Blood Simple. The parallels between the protagonists of both films, Ray (Blood Simple) and Dwight (Blue Ruin), are self-evident. Both are “good” men doing bad things for what they believe are the right reasons. As actor Macon Blair said in an interview with the Austin Chronicle, “A big influence was this whole noir idea about a weak man making bad decisions, and getting himself into a worse position than he already was in.”
There’s a scene where Dwight visits his childhood friend Ben — played magnificently by a perfectly cast Devin Ratray of Home Alone fame — to ask him for a weapon. Ben shows off his arsenal to Dwight like a 10-year-old bragging about his Star Wars Lego collection and bombards our hapless hero with detailed technical questions about shot range and spread. Dwight’s clueless facial expression creates a stark contrast which results in some exquisite deadpan humor.
Thanks to the success of Blue Ruin, Saulnier is able to make his third movie, Green Room, in 2015, attracting big-name actors such as the late Anton Yelchin, Sir Patrick Stewart and Imogen Poots, among others.
This time though, Saulnier steps back as a cinematographer, letting Sean Porter (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) do the job and stating that Porter is the kind of guy who “can do a great job working with the director’s vision without leaving a footprint.”Saulnier designed a cluster-fuck of eight people stuck in a room against an army of Nazi skinheads. He explained in an interview with IndieWire: “It was so key to keep emotional charge in the room and have all these characters maintain continuity. It was a tremendous amount of work and I knew I could not be focused on the camera.”
His main influences were such siege classics as John Carpenter’s Assault of Precinct 13 and Sam Peckinpah’s ultraviolent Straw Dogs. Both movies are about a small group of people trapped in some sort of constricted setting, while another group of people threaten their lives from the outside.
The relentless cycle of violence that is unleashed within the four walls of the room is like a punk track: raw, explicit and gritty. Saulnier doesn’t cut away, he frames front and center how Anton Yelchin’s arm gets slashed by a machete or how Imogen Poots’ character slits the stomach of one of the bad guys with a box cutter.
In Straw Dogs and Assault of Precinct 13, we as the audience are experiencing the movie through the protagonists’ point of view. Like the protagonists, we aren’t aware of how the evil outside forces are exactly planning to get in. This is an example of textbook “information deprivation”. “A key element to building tension is knowing how to play with the concept of information deprivation, as it applies to both the characters and the audience. Knowing (or not knowing) something can be terrifying”, said Saulnier in a Letterboxd Q&A. I would dare to say that Saulnier, just like every director of the suspense genre, learned it from the master himself, Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
In Green Room, the director plays with siege sub-genre elements and pushes the concept of information deprivation beyond any of his influences.
The protagonists are trapped, scared shitless, afraid of going out, and have no control of the situation; the antagonists have the high ground, a wolfpack circling its prey, readying itself for the attack. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the storytelling book: opposition or contrast, which, on-screen, translates into empathy for our ensnared characters.
Saulnier provides us, the audience, with the right amount of information to give us just a slight edge over our imperiled heroes, but keeps us in the dark just enough to consistently raise the stakes and surprise us throughout the whole film.
It’s a good thing that directors like Jeremy Saulnier are out there reinventing genres, instilling what feel like tired cinematic tropes with fresh, new ideas and vision and inspiring us to look for inspiration in those who have inspired others before them.