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Posted May 4, 2016 by

 
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Green Room

This is not a review of Jeremy Saulnier’s new movie Green Room. Instead, it’s a short case study of one particular aspect of Saulnier’s movie-making strategy as exemplified in Green Room. Sounds like fun, no?

The moment in question comes toward the end, as the suspense/thriller/horror nears its climax. A character named Jonathan…

I’m sorry, I feel like I can’t go forward without at least a quick review. So here it goes. Green Room is good. Really, really good. And I’m not one to use that second “really” lightly. If you’re a fan of this particular kind of movie, you might even go as far as “awesome.”

OK, review complete, back to Jonathan. Jonathan is not a major character. I have never heard of the actor, Samuel Summer. In the hands of a lesser director, Jonathan would be little more than fodder…

Again, sorry, but the above review may have left the wrong impression. For all of Green Room’s merit, it is not quite as good as Saulnier’s breakout movie, Blue Ruin. Blue Ruin was on my top ten list for 2014. The difference between the Blue and the Green is one of meaning. Blue Ruin is a marvelous tragedy, a nuanced portrait of the meaninglessness of revenge and the redemptive nature of forgiveness. All in the guise of a hyper-violent thriller. Green Room has almost none of that. But for kick-ass tension and heart-stopping terrors, it works like a charm. OK, glad I cleared that up.

Jonathan. So the premise of Green Room is that a wandering band of punk rockers come to play a club in an isolated part of rural Oregon. They are outsiders and the club turns out to be a haven for a vaguely defined group of white supremacists. After witnessing a violent crime, the band members’ lives become endangered and they must fight their way out.

Were this a review, I’d talk about Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots as the mismatched young heroes and Patrick Stewart as the leader of the villains, but this is not a review. Except to note that Saulnier shows, in at least one way, a sign of growth as a filmmaker. In Blue Ruin, he arms one of his white trash baddies with a crossbow. Now, this struck me as a bit over the top. Sure, there is a visceral thrill to seeing a crossbow being fired, but still, a crossbow? Who has a crossbow? In Green Room, he gives big knives to his bad guys and also uses attack dogs, but these weapons are motivated. In Green Room, he is better able to skirt the line between on-the-edge and over-the-top.

But I’m writing about Samuel Summer as Jonathan – not about those stars (all of whom were quite good. Especially Poots.) So Jonathan is a foot soldier for the evil gang stalking the punk rockers. And toward the end, he is sent into the club where they are hiding to do some mop up work. He pursues several of the punks into a basement hideout where they have sought refuge. Just before Jonathan drops down through a hole in the floor into the basement, he hesitates. He peers down into the darkness with some apprehension. His partner, standing behind him, warns, “It’s a trap, you know.” Jonathan, somewhat irritably, shoots back, “I know.” Then he jumps down into the basement to do his job or meet his fate.

That’s it. That’s the moment. That is why Saulnier is better than so many others who have thrown together some creative violence for our viewing pleasure.

Note what he has done in that brief moment. He has taken a fodder character, a nobody (no offense Samuel Summer – you were also quite good) and imbued him with traits you don’t typically see in a minor bad guy. First of all, he shows fear. He knows that this is dangerous and that he may not survive. Second, he shows common wisdom. He knows this is a trap. He is smarter than the run-of-the-mill psycho we would normally expect in such a role. Finally, he shows bravery. Despite the first two things, he still jumps into that hole to complete his mission.

In other words, Saulnier takes a minor bad guy – there are at least four other bad guys who play bigger roles – and makes him a human being, possessed of all the characteristics we would normally associate with our heroes. Good writer/directors take the time to invest such care into the main villain and perhaps a secondary one. But how many really bother to do it for the 5th or 6th guy down the list?

OK, this is certainly not the only reason why Saulnier is as good as he is, but it is part of the package. In Blue Ruin and Green Room, he has not simply come up with clever ways of dispatching people. He has created worlds. His characters are more real than we normally find in bloody revenge thrillers. As such, their trials and tribulations, and their deaths, hit a lot harder.

So Green Room might be faulted for taking a bit of a shortcut in its premise. Making punk rockers the heroes is a brilliant idea, but making skinheads the snarling villains seems a little too easy. Though, as the example of Jonathan demonstrates, Saulnier takes the time to elevate these particular skinheads above the cliché, I find myself wishing that Saulnier had set this in a downtown trendy club and made the evildoers upper crust business types. That may have had more relevance. But it may not have had the same visceral excitement.

And Green Room has that visceral sense of dread coming out of its ears. Besides, suggesting a different setting and different set of bad guys begins to make this read more like a review. And as I said, this is not a review. This is just about Jonathan.

 

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Jonathan Eig
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