Every so often there is a movie that comes around that wows me, and yet I had never heard of it. Perhaps it is an indie film, an obscure foreign film, or maybe a big budget studio film that ran out of money for marketing. The invention of Netflix has given me easy access to far more than ever before, resulting in quite a few great finds from Tucker and Dale vs. Evil to Merantau. One such find is Jeremy Saulnier’s 2013 dramatic revenge thriller Blue Ruin. Seeing this film led me to watch Saulnier’s follow-up film, the recently released Green Room, in theaters as soon as I could, and I am here today to tell you why more people should be paying attention to Jeremy Saulnier.
Revenge movies are nothing new. Characters have been looking to exact revenge on someone that has wronged them for as long as stories have existed. And while the story of revenge may be nothing new, plenty of films have tried to give us unique, stand-out experiences with the reverse-story telling structure of Memento, the intricate and well executed revenge plot by the antagonist in Oldboy, or the hyper-violent and fun Kill Bill. Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature film, Blue Ruin, doesn’t try to reinvent the genre, it merely takes the less common path of a more subdued, quiet revenge film.
So many of these modern revenge movies that have gained popularity rely on some combination of adrenaline-filled action, a fast pace, and capable heroes. Look at Taken, where an aging Liam Neeson plays a super badass ex-spy that tears through a sex slave ring single-handedly, one hard-hitting fight after another. Or the aforementioned Kill Bill where Uma Thurman’s trained assassin takes out a plethora of fellow assassin’s and their henchmen. Even something like the more dramatic Memento had a decent pace, and the protagonist was somehow able to (sort of) pull off his plan for revenge even though he had no long-term memory. Blue Ruin is nothing like these films, taking the more grounded and realistic “everyman” approach to the revenge story.
Blue Ruin follows the average, unassuming homeless man Dwight, played masterfully by Macon Blair. He finds out that the man who murdered his parents, Wade Cleland, is let out of prison, triggering his thirst for revenge. He clumsily attacks Wade in an effort to attain his vengeance, leading the Cleland clan to go on the hunt for Dwight. He quickly changes his appearance, warns his sister Sam, and seeks out help from an old friend in an effort to survive the wrath of the Cleland family.
This film is very much a dramatic thriller. We feel the tension build as Dwight finds himself in over his head in one situation after another, all a result of his quest for revenge. He has no special abilities. He is just an average guy living on the fringes of society. Dwight, along with the other characters, feel like they belong in the real world with us. And much like real life, things are messy and don’t always go as planned for our protagonist. Saulnier subverted expectations with some of the story choices, and yet it consistently felt grounded and realistic. And this is thanks not only to the writing, but the cinematography, directing, editing, and acting.
The actors in this film are all relatively unknown, including star Macon Blair, though there are a couple of familiar faces. Those who have watched Homeland on Showtime might recognize actress Amy Hargreaves, who plays Dwight’s sister Sam, and Dwight’s friend Ben is played by actor Devin Ratray, who will forever be remembered as the tarantula-owning older brother Buzz in Home Alone.
While not a perfect film, this is a very well made and impressively acted slow burning thriller. Every so often you’ll have bursts of bloody, intense violence, but this is definitely no action fest. In a world full of high-octane revenge films full of pulse pounding action and highly capable protagonists, this film stands as a breath of fresh air by taking the more grounded and quiet approach. However, that does mean that some viewers in this low attention span era might find it to be “too slow”, but this is no boring film. We are given hearty character development, mounting tension, and the occasional flash of violence. For those with the attention span for a slower paced subdued thriller, Blue Ruin is a film well worth watching.
Following the production of Blue Ruin, Saulnier went on to write and direct another slow burning thriller with a color in the title- Green Room. He apparently really likes colors. Whereas Blue Ruin is Saulnier’s take on a revenge film, Green Room is his take on a horror/thriller. This is no slasher flick, supernatural movie, or creature feature, it is a horror film grounded in reality that’s well-made, disturbing, and terrifying in its own way.
Green Room follows an obscure indie punk band as they travel the Pacific Northwest on tour, if you can even call it a tour. The first gig we see them play looks like it’s in a small Mexican restaurant and only earns them $6 each. The quartet is offered a gig in Oregon that will pay $300, the catch is that it’s at a neo-Nazi bar deep in the woods. However, the payday is too tempting, so they make their way to the compound. The situation quickly goes sideways when they accidentally stumble upon one of the neo-Nazis standing over a freshly murdered girl. The four bandmates, plus a friend of the murdered girl, must then do everything they can to survive the vicious skinheads who seek to protect their own by silencing them permanently.
The idea of being trapped in one place with overwhelming odds stacked against the protagonist(s) is common enough, showing up in action films like Die Hard and The Raid: Redemption, thrillers such as Panic Room and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, or even other horror films like The Purge. The concept itself is frightening. Nobody wants to be stuck in a single place surrounded by murderous psychopaths but what sets Green Room apart from most others is its realistic approach.
All of the characters and situations feel real. That is what makes this movie truly terrifying. This is not a horror movie with an ominous and mysterious boogeyman. The antagonists are very real with believable motivations. These neo-Nazis could believably exist in our world. This realism also means that things don’t always go as we might expect them to. We are used to certain character choices and outcomes when it comes to films, especially horror films, after the countless slasher movies that have oversaturated the genre since the '80s. But this is no slasher flick, nor does this feel much like any traditional horror film I have seen before.
Just like Blue Ruin, Saulnier opted to go a more subdued route. This is not full of cheap and unimaginative jump scares, as many modern horror films are. He also avoids going for shock value with the violence. Movies like those in the Saw and Hostel franchises focus so much on the violence that the story takes a back seat, resulting in the audience getting very little out of them past the grisly deaths. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a fair amount of graphic violence in Green Room, but the gore and violence typically happen quickly and are rarely the focus of the scene. Many times it even happens off camera or in the shadows, with the audience only seeing the brutal aftermath, but even then it is not the focus for very long.
The realism of this film is largely thanks to the fantastic cast, which features a few more recognizable names than Blue Ruin. Anton Yelchin stars as the main protagonist band member Pat. He is known more recently for appearing as Chekov in the Star Trek partial-reboot films series, but has plenty of other credits to his name. Darcy, the head neo-Nazi, is played by the always masterful Patrick Stewart, a man that needs no further introduction. Rounding out the main cast are Imogen Poots as the murdered girl’s friend who also starred in the 2011 Fright Night remake with Yelchin, Alia Shawkat aka Maeby from Arrested Development as one of the other band members, and Macon Blair whom you may recall from a few paragraphs above in my Blue Ruin review, though this time he is playing one of the antagonists. The other band members are played by the lesser known Joe Cole and Callum Turner, but make no mistake, they play their roles to perfection, just like the entirety of the cast.
I’ll be honest, I have fallen out of my love of horror films. I quickly lost interest in these seemingly unending series of Saw and Paranormal Activity movies, and almost all newer slasher films fail to make me care enough about the protagonist, dissolving any potential tension over whether they die or not. Green Room is a horror film for me. It has a well-crafted story with grounded, realistic characters and a frightening situation that feels like it could actually happen in the real world. It is not the scariest movie I’ve seen, nor the goriest, but it doesn’t need to be. The strength of this film is the realism it creates.
Jeremy Saulnier has shown us what he is capable of with these two films. They are two great examples of “less is more”. They are not bogged down by superfluous exposition as he treats us as if we have some intelligence by not fully spelling everything out. These films are violent, but the violence is rarely focused and doesn't feel like it is being exploited for shock value. It is all about the characters. Real, average people that get in over their heads and just hope to survive. There might be some slow pacing, but they never felt boring. Saulnier has a distinct style and tone within his films, and while not perfect, they are both well worth watching. Hopefully we’ll see more from this writer and director, as I think his slow burning thrillers are the perfect counterbalance to the current “more-is-more” hyperactive approach to action filmmaking.
Check out Green Room, currently playing in select theaters. Click on the link below to purchase Blue Ruin on Blu-ray!
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.