Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to his success d’estime “Blue Ruin” is another violent thriller, but compared to the former film it’s curiously simple in terms of narrative, and the director’s solemn approach works less effectively as a result. On the other hand, his restraint in the gore department is admirable, but may not please genre fans.
The eventual victims are members of a failing punk band called The Ain’t Rights—singer Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole). In the midst of a catastrophic road trip that’s left them stranded in a cornfield, they scrounge up enough gas to take them to a disastrous interview (and a last-minute gig in a dumpy restaurant), but there’s an apparent lifeline in the offer of a paying stand at an out-of-the-way roadhouse in the Oregon woods.
Unfortunately, the place turns out to be a neo-Nazi skinhead watering hole, and the band’s opening number “Nazi Punks F**k Off” doesn’t go over well. Still, they survive the set and are ready to leave with a few dollars in hand when they walk into a bad situation in the green room: the brutish leader of the next act has killed a groupie there, and the staff is desperately trying to figure out how to handle the situation. They buy some time by locking all the band members, along with one of the club enforcers and the dead girl’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots), in the room while awaiting the arrival of the place’s owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart).
When Darcy arrives, however, his interest is in protecting his turf—and his movement. While assuring the punkers that he’ll take care of them, his real purpose is to arrange things so that the dead girl will disappear, along with all witnesses to her murder, or as an alternative, to ensure that the band will be fingered for the killing. That initiates an extended cat-and-mouse routine in which the terrified quartet, along with the dead girl’s friend, try to escape while Darcy and his thugs work to eliminate them by any means available (including their vicious fight dogs).
Saulnier is effective in setting up tense confrontations between the antagonists, and staging the resultant face-offs with practiced skill. Oddly, the amount of blood that’s shed in the various encounters is less than one might anticipate in such a genre piece, though the violence can still be pretty graphic. But more emphasis is placed on ratcheting up the suspense and showing the cleverness of the prisoners in trying to extricate themselves from the situation. The body count rises inexorably, of course, and there’s an inevitable final showdown, but even there things don’t get nearly as gross as they often do in contemporary shockers.
As to the acting, it’s better than the norm for such material, but not extraordinarily so. Yelchin and Poots make an attractive pair, and Shawkat, Cole and Turner each has some good moments. The wild card in the mix is, of course, Stewart, who’s playing against the heroic types he’s usually assumed in recent films. In reality, however, this sort of quietly menacing figure is not so great a stretch for him; in fact, the part requires little more than his role in 1997’s “Masterminds”—in which he oozes similar malevolence as an oily fellow who held a bunch of students for ransom in their posh prep school—did. He’s fine, but this is hardly a revelatory performance. The rest of the cast do their jobs decently enough, and the visuals are relatively polished, with Sean Porter’s cinematography using the grubby environs provided by production designer Ryan Warren Smith to good effect. Editor Julia Bloch might be faulted for some dilatory moments, especially in the final reel, but the somber pacing there is obviously in tune with the director’s plan. The music score—including the interpolated numbers—fit the milieu, which means that they’ll appeal to a certain segment of the audience.
Compared to Saulnier’s superior “Blue Ruin,” this is a bit of a disappointment. But having now dealt with blue and green, he’ll presumably move on to another color to end the trilogy. Whatever it is, though, you can be pretty certain that he won’t ignore the periodic splashes of red, and one can hope that the result will be a return to form.
As an aside, one might enjoy the extended riff about the band members’ “desert island artist” that first comes up in the early interview segment—which becomes especially timely when, under threat of doom, the punkers finally admit that they favorites aren’t the esoteric groups they’ve been mentioning, but mainstream folk like (one of them sheepishly admits) Prince.