Can we all just agree that Jeremy Saulnier is one of the best and most exciting filmmakers working today? Three films in and it has become clear that Saulnier is something of a budding master, a director whose control of tension make his films thrilling endurance tests. But more than that, he’s a filmmaker with an understanding of his characters, a filmmaker who puts humanity in the center of his tension, and a filmmaker who knows just how valuable a good laugh is along the way.
His latest, Green Room, is a stunningly great siege film, a movie that had me sick to my stomach with anxiety. It may not have the rich thematic resonance of his last film, Blue Ruin, but that’s okay - he’s not making that movie again. He’s making a delightfully nasty entertainment, a gorgeously constructed little piece that expertly plays the audience - it’s a thrill ride in the absolute best sense of the term, the kind of tight thriller it takes a truly skilled filmmaker to create.
Anton Yelchin is Pat, the leader of the band Ain’t Rights, a punk group that’s touring the country in a beat up van, playing for beer money and Mexican food. They get an actual paying gig and they take it despite their reservations - it’s a matinee at a skinhead bar in the middle of nowhere. Despite being confrontational (the band opens with a cover of The Dead Kennedy’s Nazi Punks Fuck Off) everything goes well… until Pat walks in on a murder in the green room. Ain’t Rights ends up trapped in the green room as a small force of neo-Nazis prepares to kill them to keep it all quiet.
The leader of that group is Sir Patrick Stewart, giving white supremacist Darcy a chilling intelligence and calm. This isn’t Stewart doing an over-the-top villain but rather creating a man whose calculating violence is far more terrifying than any burst of white power rage. He’s thoughtful, careful and ruthless.
Saulnier, who wrote and directed the film, gives us characters we can care about. Pat isn’t a hero, and when he’s grotesquely wounded early in the film he reacts with the sort of blubbering we hate to admit would come out of us as well. The rest of the band is well-cast, with Alia Shawkat as the thinker of the group and Scott Pilgrim’s Mark Webber as the one guy in the band who can fight. Imogen Poots is fantastic as the Chelsea haired white supremacist who finds herself stuck with the band, and Macon Blair returns from Blue Ruin to play Gabe, Darcy’s endlessly regretful right hand man. Each of these characters - and even many of the secondary skinheads - feel real and complete, not like cannon fodder waiting to get offed in sometimes truly gruesome ways.
The pacing of the film is absolutely perfect, with Saulnier making everything impossibly tense before deflating it all enough to allow you to catch your breath. As the film hits the third act you feel wrung out, like you’ve been through a night of survival horror yourself, and the movie’s finale has an exhausted feel that is perfect beneath grungy grey Pacific Northwest dawn skies. It’s a complete experience that will send you staggering out of the theater.
If Blue Ruin examined the futility of violence, Green Room sees Saulnier poking around at the edges of its righteousness; this film has fewer shades of grey than Blue Ruin, which forced its lead to be confronted with the humanity of the family he wanted to annihilate, but Saulnier still manages to get some murkiness into his morality. Yes, it’s wonderful seeing skinheads get theirs, but at the same time he presents a picture of young men who are misled and confused. He never quite lets us off the hook for enjoying the moments when Nazis meet their splattery ends.
What I love most about Green Room is that it’s so different from Blue Ruin while also clearly being the product of the same filmmaker. Saulnier isn’t just doing the same thing again and again, and here he’s letting loose in something more like a conventional thriller than Blue Ruin’s meditation on revenge. That doesn’t mean Green Room is any less intelligent or deep, but simply that it’s going for a very different effect. Each of his movies have been different so far, and I am incredibly excited to see what this extraordinary director brings us next.