Jeremy Saulnier knows violence. The director of Hold the Dark (arriving on Netflix this week) makes movies filled with brutal, intense fights and attacks. And they aren’t the sanitized action sequences of blockbuster superhero or sci-fi movies, nor are they the often cartoonish, over-the-top gory moments in horror movies, which can end up ridiculous and laughable. The violence in Saulnier’s movies is sickening and real, with unpleasant, messy effects. It’s often practiced by people who have no idea what they’re doing, making the injuries they inflict even more dangerous and painful. Saulnier never looks away from those injuries, never letting his audience forget what the cost of violence actually is.
That doesn’t mean the violence can’t still be queasily funny at times. Saulnier’s debut feature, Murder Party (2007), could be categorized as a horror-comedy, and its protagonist, Chris (Chris Sharp), is a hapless loser who literally follows an invitation to get murdered. The lonely civil servant finds that invitation lying on the ground of his New York City neighborhood on Halloween night, and with nothing else to do, he fashions a sad-looking knight costume out of cardboard boxes and heads to a creepy abandoned warehouse for a “murder party.”
Not surprisingly, things do not work out well for Chris, although he’s more resourceful than his initial presentation would suggest. He shares that in common with the unassuming protagonists of Saulnier’s other films, from the homeless drifter of 2013’s Blue Ruin to the snide young punk rockers of 2015’s Green Room. It helps that Chris’ antagonists are just as clueless as he is. The group of pretentious NYC artists has decided that they can make their names via an “art project” that involves murdering a random civilian and staging his dead body in some sort of creative way.
Of course, none of them can agree on how exactly to, er, execute their artistic vision, and they spend more time bickering among themselves than they do preparing to kill Chris. Eventually, there’s as much violence among the artists as there is against Chris, especially once their would-be benefactor (Sandy Barnett), who claims to control hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money, shows up to pit them against each other. Some of the deaths are quick, and some are drawn-out and painful, but they’re all gruesome and unwelcome, no matter how much these pseudo-intellectuals think they understand what it takes to kill.
Murder Party co-stars Macon Blair as one of the artists, and Blair has become Saulnier’s most important collaborator over the course of his four feature films. After the freewheeling absurdity of Murder Party, Saulnier and Blair teamed up again for a much more somber — but no less savage — revenge thriller, Blue Ruin, which became the breakout film for both of them. Blair plays Dwight, who’s introduced as a heavily bearded vagrant living out of his car, sneaking a bath at a suburban home while the owners are away. Like Murder Party’s Chris, Dwight seems mild and even lost, but when he finds out that the man convicted of murdering his parents has been released from prison, he focuses all his energy on enacting vengeance.
Of course, he doesn’t have the first clue how to do that, and his initial efforts to obtain a gun go comically wrong. He ends up stabbing his target in the side of the head, watching as blood gushes from the man’s skull (a very similar stabbing occurs, with similar results, in Green Room), and having gotten his ostensible revenge surprisingly quickly, is left not knowing what to do next. Saulnier, however, knows exactly what to do next, and he puts Dwight through the punishing aftermath of his revenge (which is completed within the first 20 minutes of the movie), as the ugly consequences of violence pile up.
One new violent act doesn’t make up for the violent act from years ago, of course, and every decision that Dwight makes only takes him further away from being at peace with his parents’ deaths. He only brings other innocent parties (including his sister and his childhood friend) into the cycle of violence, entwining himself further with the family of his parents’ murderer. “So you’re, like, in it?” his friend asks when Dwight comes to him for help, and that deadpan understatement encapsulates just how all-consuming the mutual quest for vengeance has become.
Blair returns for a supporting role in Green Room, playing pretty much the only character in that movie who doesn’t commit some horrific act of violence. When the members of the punk rock band The Ain’t Rights come across a murder victim at the remote lodge where they’ve just played a show to a hostile audience full of neo-Nazis, the people who run the club (which is, of course, the front for various criminal enterprises) go into cover-up mode. “We’re not keeping you. You’re just staying,” Blair’s club manager Gabe tells the band members mildly, as he scrambles to figure out how to contain the situation.
If it were up to Gabe, maybe The Ain’t Rights would get to leave, but once quietly menacing owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) shows up, it’s clear that the situation won’t end in anything but bloodshed. “You were held here for your own safety,” Darcy tells the band members later, but unlike the explanation from Gabe, it sounds more threatening than reassuring. Trapped in the backstage dressing room where the murder took place, the band members have to improvise a way out, calling on reserves of courage and rage that they never knew they had (or, at least, had previously only channeled into their music).
Possibly the nastiest, goriest moment in any of Saulnier’s movies comes when Ain’t Rights bassist and de facto leader Pat (Anton Yelchin) is slashed with blades as he holds his arm through a crack in the room’s door. As he pulls his arm back, his hand hangs off at a nauseating angle, all the more disturbing because it hasn’t been hacked clean off. Pat has no choice but to wrap the hand in duct tape and move on. Like all of Saulnier’s unlikely protagonists, he faces unimaginable violence with a combination of stoicism and bemused disbelief.
“That’s what bullets do,” Ben tells Dwight in Blue Ruin after obliterating the head of a man who was holding Dwight at gunpoint. In Saulnier’s films, those outcomes are impossible to forget.