In Blue Ruin, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier's coming-out party, he tracked a desperate man in a revenge-fueled, Death Wish-type scenario. But that man (played by Macon Blair, who looks enjoyably like comedian Jon Daly) didn't rise to the occasion or summon hidden abilities like a Hollywood action star; he was just a regular guy fueled by a dark, sad quest for vengeance.
Saulnier returns to that viewpoint in Green Room, another examination of how normal people respond to abnormally violent situations. In just two features (he also wrote and directed the little-seen Murder Party in 2007), he's already a master at building tension, and at using a character's inadequacy to make audiences cringe at the horrors they're about to face.
Like Blue Ruin, it's a fairly straightforward (albeit off-kilter) premise. A punk band (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner) snags an unexpected gig at what they're told is a skinhead venue. What they don’t realize is the commitment of these supremacists goes far beyond mosh pits and white power; when the band stumbles upon a murder, they're forced to fend for themselves (along with attempted defector Imogen Poots) against a well-equipped mini-army of angry bald men.
To even call them "well-equipped" is a misnomer, however. They've got dogs, and guns, and a far more intimate knowledge of their surroundings. They're also led by a man named Darby (Patrick Stewart) who seems to have gone through this cleanup process a time or two before. But they're far from geniuses, tactical or otherwise; even Darcy only casts a long shadow because a) he's their unquestioned leader and b) he's played by Stewart. It's a brilliant bit of misdirection that unwinds as we move forward in the story; mostly, they stand there with malice and wait for scared people to make stupid mistakes.
When they make those mistakes, though, they pay viscerally. Arms are smashed, heads are blown off, abdominals are disemboweled, machetes are hacked into throats. Green Room is unblinking about what happens when people murder each other. The beauty of Saulnier’s work is that, despite the ultraviolence, it never devolves into Hostel-esque torture porn. Because the bad guys create fear through numbers and uncertainty, and the good guys survive via luck and subverting low expectations, it breaks away from the traditional story mold and becomes something more. The violence is blunt but necessary for the situation. It feels, for lack of a better word, real.
Saulnier knows this, of course. Along the way he cleverly inserts a few red herrings that harken back to more traditional thrillers; you’re sure that shotgun is going to matter, or that stray attack dog is going to bound back into the picture. But then the shotgun holder gets his face blown off, or the dog just wants to cuddle up next to its master. And, most importantly of all, our director doesn’t toy with us to be cute; he understands how his work differs from what came before it, how we’ll ultimately view it through that lens anyway, and how he can use those tropes to heighten and diffuse the tension appropriately.
It’s not until the final scene—the final seconds, really—that he finally stops and winks, giving us a chance to breathe after all the mayhem. And we need that moment, because Green Room is relentless in its windup. It’s smart, thought-out, and occasionally scream-inducing, with a game cast that smells what Saulnier is cooking; if only more movies had this mix of cohesion and ferocity.