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The Energy Can’t Last: On the Grimy American Fringes of Jeremy Saulnier

The entirety of filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier’s “Career” section on his Wikipedia page is four paragraphs long, and seven sentences in total. Despite Saulnier making four critically acclaimed films from 2007 to 2018, including the cult classics “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” he doesn’t really talk about his work much. Between 2014 and 2016, the interviews with the biggest newspapers in America were sparse. Alongside best friend and constant collaborator Macon Blair, Saulnier spoke to the Washington Post and the New York Times about making “Blue Ruin” after 25 years of friendship and Saulnier’s debut horror comedy, 2007’s “Murder Party,” in which Blair costarred. Two years later, Saulnier joined Patrick Stewart and the late Anton Yelchin to discuss “Green Room” with the Los Angeles Times, while with the New York Times again, he walked through one of the film’s tensest scenes, set in the titular green room itself. But in the five years since, even with the release of “Hold the Dark” on Netflix in 2018? Not much at all.

All of this is to say that Saulnier, who has continued working in commercial advertising (helming a fake movie trailer ad campaign for Taco Bell) while developing his next project (the John Boyega-starring thriller “Rebel Ridge”), has always let his movies speak for themselves. It helps, then, that his creations are so impressively singular and so thoughtfully meticulous in their presentation of the grimiest fringes of American society. Between his three latter films, “Blue Ruin,” “Green Room,” and “Hold the Dark,” Saulnier has painted a multifaceted triptych of America’s working poor that is defined by an ever-present clash between modernism and tribalism, and by the increasingly desperate methods required to survive in an often unyielding world. The films differ in genre details—“Blue Ruin” is a revenge thriller, “Green Room” is a locked-door horror, “Hold the Dark” is a supernaturally spooky mystery—but they’re united by Saulnier’s commitment to the bleakness that festers in our margins.

These are movies as relentless as they are evocative. Saulnier soaks the screen with blood, litters the frame with hacked-off limbs, and delights in the squelching sound that comes from exposed viscera and bone. At the same time, he also gives each film undeniable visual beauty, in particular by honoring their titles in their color palettes. “Blue Ruin” is defined by stars glowing in inky midnights, the crashing of foamy waves interrupting the flatness of a cobalt ocean, and the dusky azure of daybreak. A sickly lime pallor settles over “Green Room” from that perfect moment when Alia Shawkat’s Sam joins Yelchin’s Pat on his bicycle, riding past fields of flourishing corn and emerald grass, the slices of different verdant shades creating a kind of ombre effect. And the otherworldly landscape of remote Alaska, with its uninterrupted swathes of white snow and the stormy grey timbre of its sky, imbues “Hold the Dark” with an oddness that the film maximizes from scene to scene.

But Saulnier isn’t romanticizing nihilism through this combination of narrative viciousness and visual poignancy. He cares too about the characters toiling in these hellish conditions, scraping by on a couple of dollars a day, and acquiescing to dangerous situations because those are the only ways to endure. Escaping from your old life and stepping back into homelessness and namelessness to navigate your trauma, as in “Blue Ruin.” Accepting a show at a neo-Nazi bar because you need the money to get home, as in “Green Room.” Signing up for an immoral war because the U.S. military will pay to make you a murderer, as in “Hold the Dark.” As Saulnier told the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday in April 2014, “I don’t feel right doing sensational violence or raw exploitation or brutality; it doesn’t sit right with me anymore.” Luckily for us, none of his films are as simplistic as those descriptions suggest. 

“We’re gonna fucking kill you.”

“I wish you would have.”

“Blue Ruin” begins quietly. A glass nautilus figurine and the old board game Russian Roulette decorate a cozy living room, and a veil of thick steam lingers in a bathroom. A car door slams outside—and the shower curtain is pulled aside, revealing the bearded and tattooed Dwight Evans (Blair). He listens for a moment, and then we’re outside, slowly panning past the family returning to their beach house and watching Dwight’s leg kick out a window screen so he can climb out before he’s caught. Dwight doesn’t live here, but on the beach in this Delaware vacation town. Days he spends under the pier or wandering the beach, collecting plastic and glass he can recycle for a few dollars. His car, a battered, bullet-riddled Pontiac Bonneville (which Saulnier’s sister drove in high school), is parked in the reeds, rusted by the humid and salty ocean air. At night, he tears open trash bags to eat food thrown away by vacationers, then lays down in the Bonneville, flashlight in hand so he can read from the selection of hardcovers littering the backseat.

These first few minutes of “Blue Ruin” are plaintive and methodical, Saulnier’s unfussy approach hinting at the years Dwight has lived like this. Feeding himself with the scraps discarded by others. Relying on their ignorance and disinterest—how quickly they look at him, this scruffy man shuffling along the beach, and then look away. But when a police officer knocks on Dwight’s car window and asks him to come with her, “Blue Ruin” shifts into a different kind of movie with her revelation: The man who killed Dwight’s parents is being released from prison after serving 10 years. Wade Cleland Jr. (Sandy Barnett) somehow got a plea deal, and is returning to his family in Virginia. And Dwight cannot let that stand.

After that police station meeting, Dwight becomes another man. Through Blair’s immensely expressive performance, which combines the beleaguered weight Blair carries upon his shoulders and the overwhelmed, panicked look that slides often upon his face, we see that he hasn’t been hiding this whole time, but waiting. The same intention he applied to going unnoticed on this beach goes into putting in action a plan he’s clearly rehearsed countless times in his mind. He retrieves the car battery from his trunk, throws away the books and magazines with which he passed so many years, addresses a postcard to his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) back in Virginia, and hits the road, Saulnier tracking his odyssey through the increasingly forested landscape. Each one of this trio of Saulnier films includes an overhead tracking shot of the protagonist or protagonists’ lone push forward into an isolated, naturalistic place, with the suggestion that our human inhabitance of these locations is a spoil upon their purity, and “Blue Ruin” sets that tone with Dwight’s return to this place he once fled. He finds the prison from which Wade is being released. He follows the celebrating Cleland family, on winding rural roads through farms and fields, to a roadside bar where they’re throwing a welcome home party. He sneaks into the bathroom and waits in the stall, his fingers shaking and his hand covering his mouth to muffle his ragged breaths. But when Wade comes inside, Dwight doesn’t hesitate. He nicks Wade in the neck, and then stabs him in the head, and just like that, the revenge he’s wanted for so long is done.

The blood spurting out of Wade soaks through Dwight’s shirt, looking like a pair of lungs when he staggers out of the bar. He has enough situational awareness, even in his post-killing haze, to try and give the Clelands a flat tire so they can’t pursue him. But there’s little satisfaction to any of this once Wade realizes the Clelands know who he is, know where his sister lives, and are going to keep this family feud going, a la the Hatfields and McCoys. So “Blue Ruin” shifts again, from a film about an act of singular revenge to a broader meditation on the Pandora’s Box nature of violence, and on Dwight’s role in a tidal wave of cause and effect that just won’t end. What began as a film interested in how a have-not carves out an existence in a town full of haves takes a step back to determine how Dwight came to be a have-not in the first place. What was torn from him when his parents were murdered? What inspired his abandonment of his old life? And in what ways is he not so dissimilar from the very man he killed?

Saulnier knows how to deliver one shock after another: the queasy foolishness of Dwight’s attempt to remove an arrow from his thigh; a blundered face-off that ends in an unexpected bullet through the head and an explosion of brain matter; a clever voicemail trick to suss out enemy motivations in the film’s final moments. Saulnier’s understanding of the enthralling effect of gore, and the way it can remind us of our own mortality, has always been strong. And for his part, Blair’s sensitive performance gives Dwight palpable interiority. A phenomenal scene between Blair and Hargreaves captures the shared grief, but differing approaches on how to deal with it, between siblings Dwight and Sam: his disinterest in the money left to him from their parents’ estate; her acknowledgment that she knew he was in Delaware, where their family used to vacation; the little gasp Blair emits as Dwight when he admits he killed Wade; the fierceness with which Hargreaves delivers the line, “I’m glad he’s dead, and I hope he suffered.”

But “Blue Ruin” doesn’t align us fully with Dwight, even as it has him consistently maneuver his way through increasingly hairy situations. Sam calls him “weak” for having left town after their parents died, which is valid—she was the one who, in staying, regularly saw the Clelands for the past decade, and who had to mourn her parents alone. Dwight reaches out to former best friend Ben (Devin Ratray) for help, and his gentle but no-nonsense rebuff of Ben’s attempt at reliving old high school memories is a little crappy given that Dwight is essentially asking Ben to help him kill a man. And while the Clelands’ house is exactly the kind of good ol’ boy Southern compound you would expect, with dozens of guns displayed and hidden throughout the house and a scrapbook full of pictures of slaughtered animals from various hunts, does that mean they all deserve to die? Should Dwight really have the power to make that choice?

“Blue Ruin” doesn’t offer an easy answer to that question of justice vs. vengeance, or morality vs. responsibility. Think of what Ben says when Dwight asks to borrow a gun: “If it were my family, I might do the same. I don’t know. But I’m not helping out ’cause this is right. This is ugly, man.” What the film does do, though, is pinpoint the ease with which we adopt increasingly extreme measures for our survival. So thoroughly does Dwight become another person after his parents’ deaths, and after his decade intent on revenge, that neither his sister nor his best friend recognize him at first. Dwight has held onto certain facets of the man he was—like his fondness for a cup of tea, whether brewed in his billycan on the beach or offered by Ben’s mother—but his words have a certain authority now that he’s spent time on society’s outskirts. Sam does leave town after Dwight insists that she needs to protect herself and her daughters in case the Clelands were “coming for me or for her.” Ben does burn the Polaroid picture of them with a stripper back in high school, after Dwight implicitly suggests he destroy any evidence that could link them together. And William (David W. Thompson), the half-brother Dwight didn’t know he had until he kills the rest of the Cleland family, does flee to start a new life at Dwight’s urging.

“I have no regrets,” sings R&B crooner Little Willie John while Dwight makes his final preparations against the Clelands, and there’s a grim humor to the contrast between Dwight’s methodical approach and the boppy catchiness of Little Willie John’s 1958 track. Once Dwight’s mission is done—once he’s kept it all “in-house,” and killed every Cleland to protect Sam and his nieces, and succumbed to his own injuries—all that’s left as an indicator of so much violence is an arrow buried into the lawn outside Sam’s house, and the postcard Dwight had sent Sam so many days ago, finally arriving at her door. Just like the ear found in the suburbs of “Blue Velvet,” that arrow and that postcard serve as punctuations of unexpected surrealness in an otherwise ordered world. “You point the gun. You shoot the gun,” Ben had told Dwight, and Saulnier would push that eye-for-an-eye thinking one step further in “Green Room.”

 “The music is for effect. It’s time and aggression, and it’s shared live, and then it’s over. The energy can’t last.”

In 2016, after Yelchin’s accidental death, Saulnier spoke with IndieWire about his relationship with the “Green Room” lead actor, whom he described as possessing “a delicate balance of tragic vulnerability and intense physicality.” That oppositional description could apply to “Green Room” at large, a film that takes the personal stakes of “Blue Ruin” and amplifies them. There are moments of delicate friendship here, glittering and gossamer and fragile, interspersed between the hackings and the maulings and the stabbings, and they give all that devastation more heft. The Ain’t Rights are loyal to each other, and love each other, but this isn’t like “Blue Ruin,” in which Dwight’s actions are able to save his sister and nieces from being pulled into this Montague/Capulet-like war. For the most part, the Ain’t Rights die horrendous, cruel deaths, and they do so at the hands of a neo-Nazi who knows that manipulating the band’s economic scrappiness to paint them as dangerous freeloaders will be enough to absolve him of their murders. This country hates poor people more than it hates fascists, and Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) can use that to his advantage.

Much like “Blue Ruin” does, “Green Room” begins with a series of establishing scenes that place us alongside the Ain’t Rights as they struggle to make ends meet. This punk band—bassist Pat (Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole), and singer Tiger (Callum Turner)—have been touring the country in their sticker-covered van, making it from their hometown of Arlington, Va., all the way to the Pacific Northwest, and they’re tired. They nearly died after Tiger fell asleep at the wheel and drove them into a corn field. They’ve barely broken even, and they’re used to taking shortcuts to get from one day to the next: finding busy parking lots full of cars from which they can siphon gas; accepting payment in food rather than cash. They work the struggle, and its accompanying loneliness, into their song lyrics (Tiger screams, “I’m always broke and I’m alone/I ask myself what have I become?”), and although they’re comfortable with their DIY aesthetic, they don’t hide that it’s shaped by their inability to afford recording studio time. “No one wants to starve, but when you take it all virtual, you lose the texture,” Pat says. “You gotta be there. The music is for effect. It’s time and aggression, and it’s shared live, and then it’s over. The energy can’t last.”

None of it is easy, but the friendships among the Ain’t Rights are deep. They’re fond of each other, even when Reece is farting in the cramped van and everyone is razzing Pat for being unable to settle on his desert island band. Still, this kind of scrounging isn’t going to get them back to the East Coast—they can’t maintain this lifestyle for 3,000 miles. So when zine writer, show promoter, and college station radio host Tad (Thompson, working again with Saulnier) suggests that they play a “boots and braces” venue closer to Portland, Ore., that has a reputation for being a neo-Nazi hangout, the Ain’t Rights hesitate only briefly. The sustained presence of the National Socialist black metal subgenre means that the Ain’t Rights are used to seeing these guys at shows, with their red shoelaces, black collarless jackets, and myriad patches and tattoos of Nazi iconography. But $350 seems like a small fortune to a group who just made $24 playing a Mexican restaurant to an audience of two. And again, much like he did with “Blue Ruin,” Saulnier tracks the Ain’t Rights from overhead as they drive into a lush and unforgiving landscape, leaving the rugged shoreline behind to vanish into dense forests of towering evergreens. “I won’t live until I’m 70,” Tiger had said when Tad asked about their future plans, and that foreboding only gets more and more intense as recognizably polite society disappears.

Once the Ain’t Rights arrive at the bar, “Green Room” incrementally ratchets up the tension—the band’s combative performance of the Dead Kennedys’ classic “Nazi Punks F--- Off” to the unamused crowd; venue manager Gabe’s (Blair) strict rules against the group breaking the fire code; how quickly bouncer Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) tries to usher the group off the property—until we’re suddenly in Saulnier’s inversion of a locked-room mystery. A young woman is dead for trying to leave the neo-Nazis, and for threatening to reveal their drug dealing and their bloody past, and the Ain’t Rights saw her body, and now they need to disappear. The Ain’t Rights end up trapped in the green room with her corpse, her in-shock friend Amber (Imogen Poots), and Big Justin as a hostage, while venue owner Darcy is on the other side of the door, intimidating and threatening them. Saulnier’s uninterrupted take in the green room as Pat, Reece, Tiger, and Sam try to decide what to do, with Amber’s sarcastic interjections and Big Justin’s blustering warnings, is a technically impressive immersion in the band’s claustrophobia. How are they ever going to get out?

The rhythm of “Green Room” then becomes defined by one step forward, two steps back, as the Ain’t Rights make attempt after attempt to escape and are thwarted, over and over again, by Darcy and his enforcers. Their rigid sense of decorum, and how they insist on running this outpost of militant hate as a business, is formed by both years of operating within the law and an inflexible belief that their way is the right way. They correct the Ain’t Rights’ grammar, renaming them as the “Aren’t Rights” on the venue’s marquee. Darcy exclusively addresses the band as “gentlemen,” ignoring Sam. Darcy’s second in command Clark (Kai Lennox) is irritated by how much getting rid of the Ain’t Rights is costing them: “Still gotta keep the books,” he complains when Gabe signs out $350 to pay the band, and then $600 to pay off two “true believers” willing to stab themselves to lure the police away so that Darcy can set in motion their elaborate cover story. The attack dogs Clark has trained, which Darcy enlists to maul and kill the Ain’t Rights, cost money, too—thousands of dollars each. While the Ain’t Rights are fighting for their lives, Darcy’s primary concern is how this all will hurt his bottom line: “This might cost you your livelihood, Clark. As long as it doesn’t cost me mine, you’re covered,” he says. And so once Darcy finds the band’s gas-siphoning kit, a narrative forms: This reckless band trespassed on Darcy’s private property, which had a “Beware of Dog” sign. They broke the law and tried to steal gasoline from Darcy because they were stupid and desperate and poor. And what other choice did Darcy have than to set his dog upon these intruders? He didn’t know what these young punks were capable of. He was, as he tells the Ain’t Rights, “within my rights to intervene,” and if some of them died as a result of his self-defense, oh well.

“Don’t talk politics,” Tad had warned the Ain’t Rights, but Darcy’s people have no such qualms. “This is a movement, not a party,” Darcy says, and he approaches getting rid of the Ain’t Rights with the cynical knowledge of a man who can wrap himself in the persona of an American entrepreneur, and use that self-preservation as an asset. The only way to fight back against something like that, then, is to do what the Ain’t Rights have always done: refuse to play the game. They can’t trust that Gabe actually called the police, or that the police will actually arrive. They can’t trust Darcy, who presents himself as such a reasonable man. They have to use whatever weapons they can, and they have to make noise. They’re probably going to die anyway, so why not make it as inconvenient for Darcy as possible? When Pat and Amber are the only members of the Ain’t Rights party left alive, they go all in. They Sharpie their faces in camo designs. They count how many bullets are fired at them and yell commands back and forth to each other. They take Gabe as a hostage—and are now so transformed by their experience that navigating the forest toward Darcy’s residence comes easily to them, the natural world’s ominous impenetrability their asset. And when they track the remaining neo-Nazis to the crime scene Darcy is rigging up to blame the Ain’t Rights, Pat is disgusted by the mistake Darcy makes in staging the gas siphoning: “It looks fishy to me. The cloth is to make a seal. I wouldn’t do it like that.” It’s a telling little moment that reveals Darcy’s lack of knowledge regarding the lifestyle he’s denigrating, and it shatters the fear Pat held toward him: “It’s funny. You were so scary last night.” When Amber and Pat kill Darcy, they do it together, closing the circle of violence that had spread wider and wider over the course of only one night.

Is this a happy ending? Maybe. Pat and Amber staying alive after the events of “Green Room” seems theoretically better than Dwight’s death at the end of “Blue Ruin.” But Pat and Amber now have to live with the murders of their best friends, and as they listen on the radio to Tad’s interview with the Ain’t Rights from just the other day, Saulnier is reminding us: Those people are gone. That time is over. Pat finally decides who his desert island band will be, but he has no one with whom to share that information: “Tell somebody who gives a shit,” Amber says. Is Pat’s choice the Ain’t Rights themselves? Is it Minor Threat, whose T-shirt Pat was wearing? Is it Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose “Sinister Purpose” closes out the film: “Sinister purpose/Knocking at your door/Come and take my hand”? Maybe it’s one of those, or maybe it’s none of them. We’re never going to know, and Pat’s never going to be the same, and America’s disgust toward the working poor, which Darcy was going to use to protect himself from blame? That hasn’t changed yet.

“My teacher said it’s bad to kill people.”

“Yeah, you’ll hear that a lot.”

To be frank: If you went into “Hold the Dark” thinking you were getting a straightforward thriller along the lines of “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” you were probably disappointed. William Giraldi’s novel is entrancingly spooky, with blurred lines between human and animal in an icy saga about primeval otherness, and neither Saulnier’s direction nor Blair’s script deviates much from that hardness. In response, Netflix viewers were not particularly kind; the film holds a 32% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. But watch “Blue Ruin,” “Green Room,” and “Hold the Dark” one after another and it becomes clear how much the merciless darkness of the final film is a natural progression from the preceding two, and a logical step forward for Saulnier and Blair as collaborators.

Although nebulous and opaque thanks to the “existential evil in the American West” subgenre that Cormac McCarthy pioneered and across which Giraldi is also traversing, “Hold the Dark” honors Saulnier and Blair’s interests in revenge by way of the family. While “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” focused on interfamily dynamics—Dwight vs. the Clelands; the Ain’t Rights vs. Darcy’s clan—“Hold the Dark” attempts to understand the intrafamily dynamics that would cause a husband and wife (and, it’s heavily implied, brother and sister) to turn on each other. And the answer, as it was in those films, is tied up in economic scarcity, reactive violence, and survival by means of destruction.

The village of Keelut, Alaska, in “Hold the Dark” seems like another world in another time, one in which our expectation of human dominance doesn’t apply. The conditions are severe: negative temperatures, only five and a half hours of sunlight per day, and barely any infrastructure. There don’t seem to be any jobs, or any way to spend the money one would earn. Children play in the ice and the snow, and can’t imagine anything different. And while those children play, wolves are hunting, stealing, and eating them, dragging them away from the small semicircle of huts and deeper into the snowy tundra that lies north of Keelut. That’s what happened to young Bailey Stone (Beckham Crawford), says his mother, Medora (Riley Keough), who reaches out to writer and tracker Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) for his help. Years ago, Core had intervened in a similar situation, finding a wolf who had eaten a child, killing it, and writing a book about the year he spent on the wolf’s trail. Since then, he’s been a man possessed by guilt and regret. Saulnier puts us in Cole’s studio and surrounds us with paintings and sketches of the wolf, all focusing on its face, its eyes, and the light that once shone there before Cole killed it. When Cole travels to Keelut to help Medora, he does so because of her desperation—and because of his own need, perhaps, to face the demons of the past and move forward.

What awaits Core in this edge of nowhere in Alaska, though, is just more mystery, the kind that lurks in the human heart. In the middle of the night, a fully nude Medora, wearing only a feminine lupine mask made out of wood, approaches Core, lays down with him, and forces him to choke her. The next day, Core realizes that Medora strangled and hid Bailey herself. When news reaches her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) in Iraq, the man who calmly mows down insurgents and quietly stabs a fellow American soldier into a pulp when he finds him raping a local woman is sent back home. Vernon’s return—like Wade Cleland’s release in “Blue Ruin,” or like Pat seeing that dead body in “Green Room”—is the spark that sets Keelut ablaze, igniting tensions that were already there in the village. Saulnier weaponizes Skarsgård’s physicality to great effect, making him more terrifying than he ever appears as Randall Flagg in the CBS All Access adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Stand.” In “Hold the Dark,” Skarsgård looms over nearly everyone else, looking alien at his full height; he strides out of shadows wearing his own wooden, fanged wolf mask, the blankness of its expression mirroring his own tunnel vision; and he is the only dominant force in a landscape that is unapologetically harsh toward the weak.

As Vernon trails Medora, he leaves body after body in his wake. The police and medical examiner who were holding his son’s body—shot in the head. The native woman who had warned Core of evil within Medora, and who insisted that it was Keelut itself that was poisoned—throat slashed. The mask maker who helped Medora during her escape, and who treated Vernon with wolf oil as a child to calm his “unnaturalness”—shot. The drug dealer (played by Blair) who treats Vernon’s gunshot wound, but who also tries to give his location to the police—stabbed through the skull. And while Vernon is on the hunt, his best friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope)—whose daughter was actually taken by the wolves, and who resents that the police, including chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), didn’t do more to find her—kicks off his own offensive. Before single-handedly massacring nearly the entire police force with armor-piercing bullets fired from an M60 machine gun, Cheeon gives a voice to the resentments of the villagers at large: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.” Are the indigenous who live here supposed to be grateful to the police for finally hooking them up with electricity and running water only a few years before? Are they supposed to be thankful for the lackluster investigations into their missing children? Cheeon’s attack is the kind of fury that builds over generations, and that exists regardless of our empathy.

It is a relentless parade of misery, and “Hold the Dark” flirts with an eerie angle to this—that the Stones are interlopers in this land, and that their presence has helped cause so much chaos. “There’s something wrong with the sky,” Medora had whispered to Core after admitting she had no memories without Vernon in them, and before disappearing from her home, her son’s dead body locked away in the basement. Vernon himself is utterly nonplussed by the killing of others, and is in fact exceptionally good at it—part of the reason he left Keelut to serve abroad, and to make money for adapting his skills to the War on Terror. Their motivations are more obscure than those of either the protagonists or the villains in “Blue Ruin” or “Green Room.” But a certain line from Core puts some of this in perspective: “When I encountered the wolves, they were in the act of devouring one of their own. … It’s not uncommon at all. Some of their own may be killed to preserve the group. The behavioral term is ‘savaging.’” Is that not what Medora did—kill her son to save him from the burden of life, and to draw her husband back to herself? And could the violence Vernon inflicts upon those who encountered Medora be seen not as revenge, but as protection of her—because if they can’t talk about where she’s gone, she’ll never be found? When Vernon and Medora reunite, their initial anger toward each other—complemented by a discordant score from Macon’s brothers Brooke and Will Blair—melts into lust. Wright plays Core’s responding incomprehension perfectly, and when the lovers set off together, dragging their son’s coffin behind them, they leave Core with an array of questions that he’ll be puzzling over for a long while.

“I promise I’ll make everything fair,” Marium had said to Cheeon before the shootout that left most of the town’s police force, and Cheeon himself, dead, and the latter man’s utterly mirthless laughter might be the most chilling aspect of “Hold the Dark.” What could fairness be in a place like this? Disconnected from the rest of the world. Sliding further into ferality. The wolves came before, and they’ll come again. Maybe they never left at all. 

“Why any of it? … I’m not convinced the answers exist.”

“They do. Whether or not they fit in our experience is another matter.”

Saulnier is by no means the first American director to analyze the tension between feuding ideologies and the individuals clashing within them, or to understand that brutality is often answered with escalation. Kelly Reichardt has always told minimalist stories like this: about women on the frontier in “Meek’s Cutoff,” about the ecoterrorist movement in “Night Moves,” or about the early days of American capitalism in “First Cow.” On the violent end of things, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” films were about the sectarianism that can develop when people try to amass power in a destroyed world, and his image of a little zombie girl eating her father has shaped that genre for decades. The 1970s were awash in revenge films that followed characters setting right a personal wrong, from the questionably aged “Death Wish” to the infamously graphic “I Spit On Your Grave.” Films about consumption and destruction, in a country that has been defined by those forces from its very inception, have been part of American cinema for a long time. 

But what Saulnier has built into his “Blue Ruin,” “Green Room,” and “Hold the Dark” trilogy is not only a flair for the gory and grisly, but a consistent acknowledgment of the role this country’s regimented class system plays in stories of vengeance, violence, and survival. How Dwight’s vagrancy in “Blue Ruin” serves as both a decade-long refuge from the trauma of his past, and a disguise. How the Ain’t Rights’ gutterpunk lifestyle is ascribed ill intent by the fascists hiding their own illegality. How a forgotten village like Keelut, with no resources for the future other than the children who keep disappearing, can absorb a kind of mystical otherness in “Hold the Dark.” Elements of these films have already rightfully garnered praising attention: Saulnier’s visual style, Blair’s performances, and their experimentation with genre conventions. But Saulnier’s prodding reminder that economic disparity has the potential to kill us all is a core component of this triptych that deserves more consideration, and that makes “Blue Ruin,” “Green Room,” and “Hold the Dark” as American as cinema can get. 

Roxana Hadadi

Roxana Hadadi is a film, television, and pop culture critic. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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