EDITORIAL: Everything I learned from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier

EDITORIAL: Everything I learned from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier

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(Fair warning: this article spoils the plots and endings of three great films, so if you haven’t seen ‘Murder Party,’ ‘Blue Ruin,’ or ‘Green Room,’ continue reading at your own discretion.)

For having made only three films over the past nine years, Jeremy Saulnier is a fascinating figure in the world of independent cinema. Writer and director on all of his projects—as well as cinematographer on his first two films—Saulnier is an artist fascinated with violence, yet what makes him fascinating is that he doesn’t seem interested in violence for its gratuity or any derived sense of vengeful satisfaction. Instead, he constantly asks one question with his films: Can violence be considered art?

Nowhere is he more literal with this motif than in his first film, 2007’s Murder Party. Following the exploits of an average lonely guy named Chris who finds an invitation to a Halloween “murder party,” only to find himself tied up as his captors plot to murder him, the film’s central theme revolves around whether an act of violence can in and of itself be considered a work of art. Chris’ captors are all struggling artists of one sort or another, contemplating their own talent, lack thereof, place in the artistic community, or motivations as artists in the first place. Underneath the drugs and the boredom with the scene and each other, they’re grasping for their next artistic high, hoping that this kill will set them apart and bring them success in their chosen vocation.

Murder Party (2007)
Murder Party (2007)

When the captors all die from either their own stupidity or by mutual betrayal, Chris is left to confront his last surviving tormentor, a quiet guy who is immensely artistically talented but snaps under the belief that everyone deserves to die for not appreciating that talent. The final showdown takes place in an art installation composed of people in make-up posing in a room, the word “ART?” adorned in a frame on the wall. In this room, we watch the crazed artist murder everyone, yet Chris steps up and delivers the final blow with a chainsaw. He then leaves the blood-soaked scene behind as gallery patrons critique the spectacle of death. Chris goes home and continues on with his life, wearing his stained costume as a subtly changed man. This is played for comedic effect, but it’s important to note that while the audience may derive enjoyment from the gratuitous violence, Chris doesn’t. Violence is necessary for his survival, and it is no more entertaining for him than if we were in his position. Indeed, Saulnier has no interest in escapism, which his next film demonstrates almost flawlessly.

Blue Ruin completely abandons the light and comic tone of Murder Party in favor of a more grounded, more mysterious plot. Macon Blair, who played one of the sillier artists in the previous film, plays a lone drifter who reignites a blood feud that was on pause while his parents’ apparent murderer was put behind bars. Saulnier revisits non-verbal, cinematographic storytelling for the first act of this tale, letting events unfold almost wordlessly to clue us in on what exactly our protagonist is planning and what his role is in a larger narrative of two suburban families bent on killing one another. Not only does this demonstrate Saulnier’s incredible skill as a cinematographer, but it causes every instance of dialogue to carry that much more weight, as the protagonist only speaks when it’s necessary and his words often carry volumes of meaning.

blue ruin
Blue Ruin (2013)

What we eventually discover is that the drifter’s parents were murdered because his father had slept with the wife of another man, and it was that man’s son who went to prison for the deed. This flies in the face of a violent rivalry between the two families, yet the drifter—whose name is Dwight—was never a perpetrator of violence until he took it upon himself to preemptively protect himself from the released convict. When Dwight’s actions reignite the blood feud, placing him and his sister at risk, he has to step up and learn to be a violent person against his pacifistic instincts. It’s a hard lesson in survivalist violence that forces Dwight into committing acts that are never glorified, but are necessary, at least from his perspective.

The final scene of the film is a showdown between Dwight and the sole surviving members of the enemy family, where it comes to light that his father’s affair produced a child, a bridge between the families that could unite them. However, as both families come of a violent end, the extramarital offspring walks away, leaving doubt as to whether or not he will abandon vengeance entirely or pursue Dwight’s surviving sister. The film seems to imply the former, but the possibility is enough to haunt viewers as the credits roll.

Saulnier’s most recent creation, Green Room, continues his trend of placing unlikely protagonists into survivalist scenarios—the new twist this time being that these protagonists actively operate under the pretense of their hardness. Punk band The Ain’t Rights—dirt poor and without enough gas to get home from their ill-fated tour—take a gig at a neo-Nazi bar to scrape together enough funds for their return trip. After antagonizing the bar’s patrons with a rousing rendition of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” they discover a dead body in the green room and are held prisoner as their captors try to figure out what to do with them. When it dawns on the punks that they aren’t likely to get out of this alive, they have to plot for their own survival.

Green Room (2016)
Green Room (2016)

What’s striking about the film’s portrayal of the punks is that they aren’t much more than angst-driven young adults, angry at the world but not particularly violent or prone to acting on any of their gripes. Place this in juxtaposition with the neo-Nazis; it’s a slow reveal of just the extent the Nazis are willing to protect their community, but the deadliness and ruthlessness with which their leader plans to kill the problem guests speaks to a near-inhuman callousness toward human life. In turn, in order to survive the night, the punks have to learn to strike back against their captors, to live up to their own bravado, or otherwise die in the process. As the morning sun dawns, a surviving band member and a lone Nazi defector go to kill the last of the Nazi leadership. At this point it isn’t a matter of self-defense but of vengeance. The night turned them into killers, so that even as they cathartically murder the Nazi leader, the lingering notion remains that he and they may not be so different.

So what exactly have I learned from Jeremy Saulnier? The name of this article might be a bit misleading, just because Saulnier is a director much more gifted at raising questions than he is at giving clear answers. He persistently asks whether violence can be art by exploring the impact it has upon protagonists who aren’t ready to commit such acts. The blood and chaos may be cathartic from the audience’s divorced point of view, but the protagonists of these stories remain irrevocably changed, and not for the better. Is it therefore justified that we derive enjoyment from his characters’ suffering? It’s a bleakly ambiguous question that is excellently highlighted by one of the best unsung directors of our time.