When I finished watching Jeremy Saulnier’s chilling, subversive take on revenge movies in Blue Ruin (2013) late in 2014, Green Room (2015) had already been in production. As I was itching for more of what the emerging director had cooking up, the next dose was luckily not a distant proposition, so delayed gratification was not an obstacle in between hits. While technically his third feature (it feels like his second due to the tonal departure from a campy debut), Green Room served a continuation of portrayals of gun-toting fringe cliques in the American cultural landscape for Saulnier. Blue Ruin‘s self-perpetuating cycle of tribal vendettas unfolding just beyond the white picket fenced lawns of suburbia was a reminder of the dormant lawlessness just outside civilization, where remnants of frontier law may still persist, I imagine. It is in the outskirts of essentially pockets of urban clusters and modernity where ages-old, an-eye-for-an-eye mantras seem to still hold sway, and America is no different.
Though unintended, this gritty depiction presents an opportunity for self-critiques for the American society without the requisite self-reflection. Meaning, incidents of violence are what tourism boards don’t want plastered on visitor’s brochures while excusing what may appear as gratuitous gore from the director. The bare-bones characterization of Dwight’s (Macon Blair) adversaries lends a randomness to the violence, the types of which mayors are loath to have circulating on the crime news about their cities. Guns abound, people bicker and grudges may be held, and that’s what happens between (or during) barbecues and ball games across America. In introducing a neo-Nazi punk scene outside of Portland, Oregon—a liberal haven—Green Room takes that idea cross-country and pumps it with steroids with the magnified and amplified crowd of more extras, principals and dialog. An east coast punk rock band subsisting on any gig they can score finds itself witness to a murder in an Oregon skinhead bar. They’re kept in the club’s green room and next comes the stand-off and ensuant mayhem. On one front, there is a moment when Darcy (Patrick Stewart) implores the intruders holed up in his office, reminding them of the inalienable right to defend one’s property in the absence of law enforcement. On the latter point, i.e. its bigger scope, for Saulnier, helming Green Room is like going from one alien with Scott to a colony’s worth with Cameron without there being any narrative sequellization.
It was difficult not to immediately judge Green Room without the accumulated biases from Blue Ruin. Being more dependent on action, frights, countercultural paraphernalia, and humor, even, the later film proved less reliant on contemplative power. Its frenzied pace and myopic focus leave a very narrow angle to home in on the menace lying in wait behind the door. For this reason Green Room feels justifiably different, its cultural context now more fleshed out, more realized, in comparison to Blue Ruin‘s faceless hicks the protagonist naively locks horns with. It is steeped in formulaic rhythms though I am not sure those detract from the overall quality and effort. It provides less in the way of an exploration of the protagonist(s) and a deeper scrutiny of the villains yet much of the same elements of self-discovery for the former to undergo. Given that it ends without clear closure lends itself to the conventions of a horror film. The villains are dispatched but there is no relief or redemption beyond the grand prize of survival itself. Amber (Imogen Poots) and Pat (Anton Yelchin) do not so much as touch hands, much less get to pick up the pieces or live happily thereafter. The sheer bewilderment of the journey, the mere happenstance of its inception from an unplanned detour, wear off as the adrenaline shuts down all logical reasonings behind the logistics of a Nazi bar in the middle of woods and the carnage which follows. Even the heroin lab ultimately served as nothing but a macguffin slyly tucked in in the back when most would expect a meth operation given the chosen demographic for the antagonist role.
There are anthropological angles to the inadvertent intrusion into subcultures inhabiting guarded spaces, which brings us to Midsommar, another film where the atmosphere is distressing, tense and sinister. This encroachment behind enemy lines, so to speak, is rife with peril for the outsider group. Outsiders walk a tightrope whereby the wrong move may upset sensibility as to invite severe retribution. This tension is heightened and accelerated in Green Room but in Midsommar, it is subdued and deliberate, though equally menacing. The end goal is the same for both the neo-Nazis and the Harga commune; safeguard their viability through secrecy and fierce territoriality; it’s just that everything happens too fast for everyone in Green Room, including the villains. Both films are intriguing examples of cinematic violence that breaks the unspoken author-reader contract applicable to films, mainly that the viewer trusts the filmmaker to guide them around their world safely. In a way, the sudden bursts of violence in these films violates that agreement, and by association, the viewer. The destruction of the human body is given ample attention while the sanctity thereof is shown the opposite; a complete disregard. Stylistically speaking, the violence straddles the line between gratuitous and warranted—polar opposites, so the margin shouldn’t be that fine.
Granted, if Hereditary (2018) arrived with plaudits that inflate expectations, Midsommar must, regardless, carry the weight of it being its director’s second film. A make or break precipice was on the horizon for Aster, whether the viewer was a fan or a detractor. Admittedly, I had a vague idea of what Midsommar was about—a summer music festival in sun-drenched Sweden that devolves into mayhem a la Green Room. How could a story transform from an outdoor concert descending into the occult? Could that many attendees be held captive or would enough of them be in on the conspiracy? This hypothetical scenario could only exist as the brainchild of Tarantino’s hyperactive imagination, congealing as a miniature of a Woodstock reimagined. The promise of modernity from that concert was misconstrued form a brief trailer; instead, it was an anthropological deep dive into a rural, pagan commune straight predating Christianity.
Midsommar begins with an utterly sinister mood that then brims with boundless dread throughout. Its opening passages drag on agonizingly—as if shouting at the viewer to gaze at the carnage. Shot more with an eye for the disconcerting, this introductory passage arrives at the expense of customary backstory. If first impressions reveal Dani (Florence Pugh) as quite the handful for boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), an instant later he’s shown to be a shitty boyfriend. The frosty grayish exteriors and warm, low-contrast interior scenes evoke the bitter coldness of the unnamed locale and the impending abandonment Dani is oblivious to. After receiving the harrowing news of her family’s murder-suicide by her sister, a wrench is thrown into her boyfriend’s plans of dumping her. And this is how she winds up in Sweden the following summer. As an invite by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to a midsummer Norse festival occurring every 90 years in his ancestral home looms for Christian, Dani winds up tagging along despite the vehement objection of Christian’s other travel companions. Still grieving, she poses the ultimate baggage and hot potato no one wants on a transoceanic bro-trip centered around a postgrad thesis and chasing Scandinavian tail.
The drab grays and muted interiors are swapped for the blinding yellows of nightless skies of the northern extremities of the subarctic circle. The scenic setting is untainted by modern conveniences, and the remote village, by all indications, is self-sufficient. The camera flips over and the musical cues signal an idyllic charm that at once beckons and forewarns. Simultaneously for both viewer and characters, the curiosity inherent in a rural commune’s quaint and archaic hermeticism provides plenty to gawk at. While one can’t help but keep their eyes peeled for the next eyebrow-raising oddity to present itself in cultural exchange, one also fears for the visitors veering too close to offending their hosts over some culture shock. Knocking up one of the blooming tweens, surprisingly, isn’t one such offense. Aster next serves up set-pieces of increasingly bizarre and gruesome rites that, in the spirit of cultural exchange and good will, would be brushed off as tolerable sociocultural quirk, though, it is when those rites require the [involuntary] involvement of the guests that the insidious and gradual manipulation become inevitable and par for the course. Where many saw release, acceptance and transformation for Dani—and one may entertain theories about whether or not Pelle actively pursued and lured recruits for his commune—I saw a fate worse than the upheaval of losing her entire family. Aster follows up on his exploration of the chosen one archetype shown in Hereditary this time by detailing the adventure and aftermath for its lone survivor in Midsommar. In a theatrical run clocking in at a massive 148 minutes, Aster had every probability to falter yet he evades most major missteps unscathed. The staggering run-time borders on self-indulgence, still, no frame goes wasted, despite there being a case to be made against it for those excesses. And it is precisely for that reason why the director’s does not come recommended. Midsommar channels a little bit of both ends of the horror spectrum of low and high brow offerings. The closest film would be The Wicker Man but there is a bit of 80s teen horror thrown in that I wasn’t fond of upon discovering their intentional inclusion.