Cannes 2015 – Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)

Two years ago, one of the most buzzed titles on the Croisette was a small, low-budget (close to $0.5M) flick in the Quinzaine by the name of Blue Ruin. The revenge tale was shot for next to nothing, but garnered quick acclaim in Cannes for its tightness and great genre filmmaking. This year director Jeremy Saulnier returned, again in the Quinzaine, with his follow-up Green Room, another genre film, albeit this time he tackles the ‘siege’ genre. A bigger budget, bigger stars (well, Blue Ruin had none, really), bigger sets, bigger everything. What has remained is the intensity and the craftsmanship, as well as Saulnier’s command of the mise-en-scene and on-screen tension.

Punk rockers the Ain’t Rights (kind of a shitty name for a band, actually) is a bottom-of-the-barrel band playing the Oregon club circuit for scraps, although to call the first venue we see them play a ‘club’ would be severely stretching the word. By chance, they are booked for a gig at the clubhouse of a group of local neo-Nazis. Though they don’t share those sympathies, it will at least pay for their gas and food, so they head into the Oregon woods. After a rocky start (The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” doesn’t really go down well with this crowd), the concert is a moderate success. Just as they are about to leave, they witness something they weren’t supposed to see: the murder of a girl in the green room. The manager of the place offers to call the cops, but as he leaves the room, the band wisely doesn’t trust him and barricades the door. The owner (Patrick Stewart) arrives on the scene, and quickly establishes that the band has seen too much and should be eliminated. Commence siege. As expected, it doesn’t take long before the bodies start piling up, and the film turns into a Ten Little Indians-style cat-and-mouse game centred in and around the titular green room.

Blue Ruin already showed that Saulnier has a knack for blood and gore, and with more money at his disposal, gore hounds will be pleased to learn that for Green Room he seems to have employed a sizeable portion of that money for the (mostly practical) effects and makeup departments. Box cutters and shotguns, machetes and fight dogs, everything and the kitchen sink is thrown at our little punk band, with predictable bloody effects. Some of these moments come very suddenly, making the film veer into the horror genre at some points. Elsewhere, the art department has gone out of its way to create a believable environment (the whole clubhouse set was built from the ground up) with enough nooks and crannies to hide vicious bloodhounds and machete-wielding neo-Nazis.

This is not a film most people will go see for the acting, although it must be said that the cast is uniformly game for the mayhem they are thrown into by Saulnier. Even a veteran thesp like Stewart plays the cold-blooded neo-Nazi gang leader with glee, giving his character a menacing streak through internalizing the performance instead of chewing scenery (he wisely leaves that to the dogs). But Saulnier also gets winning performances out of Macon Blair (a high school friend of Saulnier, and the lead in Blue Ruin) as the clubhouse manager, Imogen Poots as the mysterious but smart girlfriend of the murdered girl, and soulful-eyed Anton Yelchin as insecure bass player Pat.

Given the fact that Blue Ruin only made $1M worldwide (though in itself not a mean feat for such a small film), Green Room will have to rely on the drawing power of its stars, most notably Stewart, Yelchin, and Poots, to do better and recoup the budget. The target audience will be the same, so this will come down to marketing. But whatever the outcome, it should be clear that his previous film was no fluke: Jeremy Saulnier is an exciting new talent and one to watch in the coming years. Though unlikely to break out of genre filmmaking any time soon, he admitted at the Q&A that he wouldn’t shy away from doing something big-budget in the vein of the Jason Bourne series, while definitely stating he would never do something like Transformers, as he likes his action grounded. But don’t expect Saulnier to helm a costume drama in the foreseeable future. Which is okay, as long as he keeps coming up with creative new entries in whatever genre he chooses next (apparently he has no real project in the pipeline at the moment). His third feature film Green Room is another triumph of genre filmmaking, and hopefully it can propel him to something even bigger.

Green Room - Directors' Fortnight