Is there really any surprise in a thriller anymore? Most of the action/thrillers that appear in cinemas today are built on a pretty reliable formula:

  1. Aging action star taking an unexpected badass role as a…
  2. …main character who is an ex-cop, ex-Black Ops, ex-special forces, ex-all of the aforementioned who then must…
  3. …avenge his kidnapped and/or murdered wife, daughter, entire family, second cousin, etc.

It’s perfect, then, that director Jeremy Saulnier has arrived on the scene to breathe new life into a genre that is quickly becoming trite and bloated with excess. Though he only has three films under his belt, Jeremy Saulnier, through his latest films BLUE RUIN and GREEN ROOM, has established a few very clear auteur traits. His films are set in the eerie wooded areas of a time-lost America and are driven by violent acts and the ramifications of those acts on the victims and the perpetrators. The protagonists of both films are achingly human. Lacking traditional Hollywood appearances and swagger, they are the average schmo and behave as such throughout their films. Oversaturation of formulaic thrillers in our cinemas has created a generation of genre-savvy audiences that expect their highly skilled heroes to mow down wave after wave of faceless, ineffectual goons, but Sauliner’s protagonists are constantly out-matched physically (and on occasion intellectually), heightening the realism of what could otherwise devolve into outlandish exploitation flicks. However, Sauliner expresses every violent encounter so matter-of-factly that it shocks the audience out of the understated reality he has created. This level of understatement is extended to the tone of his films as whole; he strips the thrills to their bare bones and builds tension through the use of a mundane protagonist.

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How do you classify the mundane protagonist? Quite simply it is a character in an extraordinary situation who reacts to the situation in the way the average, non-movie-character person would. In essence, a true everyman. There are many characters who would definitely fall onto the spectrum of the mundane protagonist, but few have matched the level of craft and care that Saulnier puts forth in BLUE RUIN and GREEN ROOM.

On the farthest end of the spectrum, we have every character Liam Neeson has played in the last decade or so since the first TAKEN film: highly competent, focused, a man with a “particular set of skills,” to borrow the famous phrase. Even in a film like UNKNOWN where he starts out as a simple doctor, a third act twist reveals that he is still playing the same character from his late-period badass oeuvre.

Sliding down the scale, just about to the right of the middle, we hit John McClane from the classic DIE HARD. In many ways, the McClane character did for action/thriller films of the ’80s what Saulnier may accomplish with his characters now. McClane was a total counterpoint to the invincible Stallones, Schwarzeneggers, Lundgrens, and Van Dames of the decade who were all becoming too prideful to play action characters with imperfections or weakness. Bruce Willis gave a performance as John McClane that was instantly likable because of his scrappy attitude and vulnerability, all of which allowed director John McTiernan to create scenarios fraught with excitement by simply adding a new element of danger, like a floor of broken glass, into the mix. However, John McClane is still a New York City cop. Despite being the underdog, we still know that his background gives him an edge in the impossible situation he has found himself in. That small bit of training and preparation releases some tension from the entire endeavor because we know that this is the type of guy we want taking charge in a feces-meets-fan situation.

As we move further down the Mundane scale, we reach the filmmakers that have likely most inspired Saulnier’s work: the Coen brothers. The Coens employ mundane protagonists in many of their films to great effect, from the dramatic (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BLOOD SIMPLE) to the comedic (THE BIG LEBOWSKI). However, many of the Coen characters tend to keep their audience at a mildly ironic distance. The brothers are masters of suspense, for sure, but many of their mundane protagonists are comedic creations first and foremost. Saulnier’s employment of the mundane protagonist puts the audience immediately in a state of suspense and uncertainty; these aren’t the archetypes they are used to seeing. These vulnerable heroes make the audience feel like no one is safe, and all because of a simple subversion of the archetypal thriller protagonist.

In BLUE RUIN, the main character Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a beach-bound vagrant with sad blue eyes that look like they were lifted from a Margaret Keane painting, is set up as an archetype audiences have been exposed to since the early days of storytelling: the man on a vengeful mission. Like the classic lone gunman, Dwight wanders back into town after discovering the killer of his parents is being released from prison to set out on a mission of payback, but we slowly see that he is completely unfit for the task at hand. He gets his revenge quite early in the film’s runtime, accomplishing the deed with that aforementioned shocking violence that lesser films often take nearly two hours to accomplish, but stumbles his way through escapes and reversals of fortune from men seeking retribution for Dwight’s previously sought revenge. As Dwight struggles through the aftershocks of his quest for vengeance, we also watch the script’s deconstruction of revenge tropes as filtered through the film’s intentionally mundane lens—the primary one being that revenge is a hopeless cause.

In order to accomplish this, Saulnier structures his film to begin where most revenge-based thriller films end: the hero’s triumph over his sworn enemy. Much of American cinema is based on the idea that killing the enemy will allow the protagonist to receive his or her vengeance and the solace he or she seeks. However, these films rarely question this “eye for an eye” philosophy. Violence rarely creates a permanent end to violence, but because the world of a film only exists between opening and closing credits, we never see the repercussions of the main character’s retribution. By beginning where most revenge thrillers end, Saulnier pushes the audience into unfamiliar territory, immediately subverting their expectations. Within the film’s first 30 minutes, Dwight kills Wade Cleland, his parents’ killer, but he soon realizes the entire Cleland family is now out for his blood, bringing us to the driving force of the film’s plot. Dwight barely escapes the invading Clelands as they attack his sister’s home, running over one of them (who he takes hostage) after being shot in the leg from a crossbow bolt. Beyond the structure, the plotting delights in upending the expectations of the audience in these scenes where we expect our badass, revenge driven hero to soldier on like a one-man army. The typical self-conducted surgery scene—you know the one, typically involving a gross close-up moment of fingers digging into bloody flesh to remove a bullet or bits of broken glass (hello, Mr. McClane)—is completely deflated by Dwight’s inability to properly treat his leg. Instead, he does what anyone who doesn’t live in a movie would have done: go to the hospital (albeit with a hostage in the trunk).

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While deadpan funny, this moment also highlights Saulnier’s larger narrative trick: by pulling the mundane into the fantastic world of thriller-genre filmmaking, he deconstructs our expectations and a new layer of tension is born. The grossly out-matched hero of this film leaves the audience feeling more and more concerned for their well-being. Dwight is mismatched to the point of comedy, closely resembling Nicholas Cage’s character in the classic Coen film RAISING ARIZONA. A few music changes in select scenes of BLUE RUIN (perhaps even using the goofy RAISING ARIZONA score), would make the scenes uproariously comedic. However, Saulnier refuses to let the comedy overtake the scene, leaving any moments of levity to be as dry as a box of saltines. Those moments of comedy serve as further reminders to the audience that Dwight should not be in this situation. There’s no training montage and “leveling up” for Dwight, like the type you would seen in OLDBOY, another film that uses a mundane protagonist who turns into a ludicrously fun-to-watch badass. Dwight starts out and remains hapless throughout the film and digs himself deeper and deeper. BLUE RUIN stands as the strongest case for thriller films not needing a superhuman protagonist against inconceivable odds in order to be exciting; they simply need a deeply flawed, vulnerable one to create tension.

The ultimate trope deconstruction of the revenge thriller comes from Dwight breaking the cycle of violence and sparing the youngest member of the Cleland family, allowing Dwight to maintain his humanity and giving the audience a stern reminder of the film’s message: the circle of violence can be endless and cannot be halted through more violence, but rather only through acts of genuine mercy. This is a message that is best serviced by the use of the mundane protagonist. When dealing with characters that exist in a heightened reality, the audiences often reject morality tales because they are seeking escapism. By placing this message in a film with such a flawed and realistic central figure, it serves as a reminder to the audience that the worlds of fantasy and reality must maintain that stark line between them, and what functions as justice on the silver screen is merely senseless violence in the real word.

This deconstruction through the mundane and outmatched protagonists continues into Saulnier’s latest film, GREEN ROOM. This film presents us with a group of heroes—a punk band called the Ain’t Rights—who are young, idealistic kids on a quixotic quest for fame and, due to their involvement in the punk scene, seem capable of holding their own in a brawl. They live a life that reflects their music—fast, thrilling, passionate—yet ultimately find themselves in similar, extraordinary circumstances. GREEN ROOM partly rests its storytelling laurels on tropes of the siege thriller subgenre in the same way BLUE RUIN hangs on a revenge thriller story. The film establishes a taut atmosphere early on, simply by placing our characters’ latest performance at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar located deep in the woods of Portland, Oregon. Saulnier frames the bar like a military compound, as the skinheads move through the frame with intense, unknown purpose. This total isolation from society immediately puts the audience on edge before the proverbial fuse of the plot is lit. After the band’s set, which includes performing an antagonistic rendition of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” Pat (Anton Yelchin), the central band member in the film, stumbles across a dead body in the backstage area. The Ain’t Rights, along with a girl from the club named Amber (Imogen Poots), barricade themselves inside the green room to protect themselves from the potential onslaught of the skinheads who want them out of the club.

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Much like the titular gang in the Walter Hill film THE WARRIORS, our band of heroes has to rely on their wits and each other to make it through their confrontations. Unlike the Warriors, there’s no badass posturing among the Ain’t Rights in the showdowns to come; the heroes panic, cry, and lash out with paroxysms of violence as the head skinhead Darcy (a subtly sinister Patrick Stewart) hovers over all of the events, portending doom for the band. While the Ain’t Rights certainly have more of an edge to them than Dwight Evans, they are still nowhere near up to the task of fighting to the death for their own lives. The grit and toughness of the punk facade fades away and the audience is reminded that these are not the untouchable heroes but people (further reinforced by the moment where, fearing their imminent demise, the band reveals their choices for “desert island records” that include decidedly un-punk choices like Simon and Garfunkel) who have to overcome the daunting fear of death.

As the Ain’t Rights are picked off in grisly ways, Pat recounts a story to Amber about a paintball game where he and his buddies were only able to beat the opposing team, made up of Iraqi war vets, by throwing away all strategy and attacking without purpose or plan. The determination by Pat that the only way to win is to throw the completely unexpected at the skinheads reads like Saulnier’s mission statement and advice to filmmakers. Want to leave an impression? Throw what they never expected to see at them. Disregard the standard hero tropes they’ve seen before and build characters that are just like them. In an interview with the /Filmcast podcast, Saulnier discusses his writing process in creating realistic characters: “My philosophy is, let’s just live with the character. Let’s see through their point of view…I try to inhabit the characters as I write, and I really do disregard any kind of notes or expectations that I shouldn’t be adhering to.” By disregarding those expectations, he shows audiences something rarely see on screen: heroes who behave like normal human beings would in terrifying and extraordinary circumstances.

When Pat enacts the plan, the true inefficacy of the skinheads is revealed and the audience sees they were truly nothing to fear in the first place. Saulnier manages to subvert his own film and reveal the once terrifying antagonists of the film to be just as inept in the same way we once saw our heroes. This may seem deflating, but it provides the film with a unique cathartic moment for the audience. In his final stand-off with Darcy, Pat comments, “You were so scary in the dark.” The victory of the film doesn’t come from killing the bad guys. Instead, the day is won when our mundane protagonists are able to overcome their fears and realize that the skinhead boogeyman that they have feared all this time is a flesh and blood, vulnerable human being just like them.

Dragging the terrifying into the light is what allows Pat and Amber to survive their ordeal, just as deconstructing the average thriller hero through his mundane protagonists allows Saulnier to craft unique thrills in his films. The common thread between both of these films is the empathy that the audiences feel towards the characters. This empathy is created by breaking down of archetypal thriller protagonist where the characters reflect how the audiences themselves would act and behave in these exact situations. Saulnier wants the audiences to live in these impossible experiences to create maximum tension. By deconstructing our expectations, he brings our mundane reality and the fantastic world of the thriller crashing into one another to create new cinematic suspense.

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One Comment

  1. teageegeepea

    June 12, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    I disagree that there’s some revelation, on the part of the audience or the characters, that the skinheads are flesh & blood rather than boogeymen. The first person we actually see killed is Big Justin, the most individually formidable of the skinheads. What changes at the end is that enough of the band have been killed in ways that could be blamed on dogs that most of the skinheads leave to set up a fake scene of death. If Pat & Amber had tried a full-frontal assault earlier on, they would have just gotten killed. Remember that they tried something like that previously when they went out the front-door guns blazing, which got Sam killed and Amber wounded.

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