No other film released this year has given me the sort of electric thrill as Green Room, a tense, relentless horror-thriller about a backwoods standoff between a DC punk band and a gang of well-armed Nazi skinheads. It's a short, powerful blast of a movie that does nearly everything right, from its sophisticated visuals and loving treatment of punk-rock aesthetics to its quiet, focused performances, particularly from Patrick Stewart as a terrifyingly business-minded Nazi leader. More than that, it's the rare horror film that treats its often shocking and grisly violence with integrity and respect.
I've seen Green Room twice now, and it only gets better on second viewing. But just as exciting as the movie itself is the promise of its young director, Jeremy Saulnier. As a follow-up to his 2013 breakthrough, the ultra-low-budget revenge thriller Blue Ruin, Green Room confirms his considerable talents and provides a further exploration of the ideas about violence, aesthetics, and genre filmmaking that animate him as a filmmaker.
Visuals are one of the most important elements of Saulnier's work
Much of what makes both Blue Ruin and Green Room stand out from their genre movie competitors is the richness of their visuals. Saulnier worked mainly as a cinematographer and cameraman before getting Blue Ruin off the ground (he'd previously directed the micro-budget horror comedy Murder Party), and his time behind the lens is more than evident from his economical, often subtly witty compositions that don't get in the way of their stories. They are both gorgeous films in their own way, but they also don't bend over backward to call attention to their shot choices.
Saulnier makes his films look great by taking the time to do so. Blue Ruin, which he shot-directed himself, was produced on an extremely small budget. But he'd seen so many directors lose their visions as a result of having too little time on set. "Every film seemed like every director that I worked for was just getting their vision trounced and destroyed. There was never enough time to do good work," he told French news site Clap.ch. So he scheduled an unusually long shoot for the film — 30 days instead of a more typical 18 — allowing him the time to achieve the somber, unsettling tone he wanted.
For Green Room, he worked with director of photography Sean Porter (Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter) to create an authentically grungy look for the film’s main setting — a punk-rock venue run by skinheads — and to develop a visual language to reflect the mindsets of its two main groups of characters: the punk rockers stuck inside the venue, and the skinheads trying to wipe them out.
"We knew we wanted to be more static in the green room," Saulnier recently told IndieWire. "We knew we wanted to be on a dolly. No steadicam was allowed. But outside the club we needed to keep it moving, like sharks swirling their prey."
Visual fidelity is obviously important to him: In a question-and-answer session following a recent screening of Green Room in Washington, DC, Saulnier answered an audience question about directors he'd like to spend time with by pointing to both the Coen brothers, noting their commitment to telling stories through "very visual language," and Steven Soderbergh, "because he shoots his own stuff."
Saulnier draws on both his technical expertise and his status as a longtime film fan
Saulnier, in other words, thinks like a cinematographer, conceiving of his films as essentially technical, visual experiences. But he also thinks like a devoted movie viewer, building the ideas for his films by twisting concepts from other genre classics.
Blue Ruin was widely described as a kind of homage to the Coen brothers, with its cascade of violent incidents and ironic confusion, and Saulnier's initial pitch to potential backers was that the movie would be like the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men but with a protagonist who is an idiot.
Green Room riffs heavily on Sam Peckinpah's gritty 1971 siege film classic, Straw Dogs, a movie that Saulnier says he intentionally referenced. It also feels very much like a spiritual sibling to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, a movie that Saulnier says he watched for the first time after he finished the Green Room script. Carpenter's film, Saulnier said at the screening Q&A, "became a reference after the fact — not so much [for its] plot, but texture. I loved the fact that it was an unabashed exploitation flick, and it was simple and blunt force."
Green Room and Blue Ruin feel like they grew out of a deep love for the 1970s and '80s genre film canon, as well as an intelligent sense of how and why those films work. Indeed, Saulnier introduced the Green Room screening by saying that the film was partly a product of repeat viewings of the opening SWAT team scene of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — a sequence that acts as a kind of miniature siege movie. "I'm certainly a product of every film I've ever watched," he said at the Q&A.
Green Room uses squeamishness to underscore its brutality
The 39-year-old Saulnier isn't just recycling and remaking the genre films from his childhood. He's updating them, and reflecting on them from his vantage point as an adult. In particular, he uses his films to explore the way their forebears treated violence, and the ways in which fans of those films would fetishize on-screen blood and guts.
As a kid, Saulnier made home movies with surprisingly complicated gore effects — fireworks attached to condoms filled with fake blood for squibs ("squib" is a catchall term for exploding blood packs used on movie sets; you can see a few brief examples of Saulnier's work in this short on the making of Blue Ruin). But in crafting movies as an adult, his relationship with cinematic blood and guts has grown more complicated.
While writing the script for Blue Ruin, he said he heard his daughters playing nearby, and realized how much more squeamish he'd grown since his youth. "I was terrified that I was too soft to make the genre films that I loved growing up," he said in an interview for the making-of documentary. "So I decided to embrace the fact that I am timid about this, and maintain my love of fictional on-screen violence, but make sure it's dealt with in a brutal way, an emotional way, so it has a dramatic impact, and it's not glorified." Similarly, Saulnier recently told the Boston Globe that he made Green Room "for my 19-year-old self," saying that he had to do it before he got "too soft."
Yet you can already see the softness creeping in. Yes, Green Room, like Blue Ruin, is a spectacularly gory movie at times: There are vicious dog attacks and limbs mauled by machetes and faces blown apart by shotguns. But the movie never dwells on its violence; it refuses to turn its gore into a fetish. If anything, it emphasizes the trauma of being exposed to such acts.
The movie begins when the punk band inadvertently sees a dead body in the back room of the club, and while Saulnier shows us the head with the knife sticking out, he focuses the scene on the horrified reactions of the band members, not the body itself. After one of the characters suffers a particularly gnarly wound, another dresses it while repeating the words, "look away, look away," which serves as advice to the audience as well. Many of the film's goriest moments are shown only in quick glimpses, or very low light, as if Green Room itself is somehow unwilling to look at its carnage for very long, preferring to play up its physical and emotional horror. It is an ultra-violent movie that is shocked by its own violence.
Saulnier's films are about the tension between his childhood movie loves and his adult self
That tension is what drives both Blue Ruin and Green Room, and what makes Saulnier's movies so effective: They are conversations between his younger, genre-movie-loving past and his adult self.
The director grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and in introducing the DC screening of Green Room, noted that his mother was in attendance. "This is the kind of film that you're supposed to hide from your mom," he said. "Like you're watching on VHS in 1992, and then you pause it when your mom comes in."
It's a surprisingly telling description: In many ways, Green Room is the sort of brutal, visceral movie you probably wouldn't want your mom to see. But it's also one that demonstrates a capacity for thoughtful, grown-up reflection on those sorts of movies. It's brash, thoughtful, thrilling, carefully executed, and violent, but with a strong moral sense — the type of movie we don't see nearly often enough. And that makes me very, very excited to see whatever Saulnier does next.
Green Room opens nationwide on April 29.