Directed by Jeremy Saulnier (2015)
by Sandy DeVito
Editor's note: The MJ crew is still broken up about the loss of Anton Yelchin. This review was written before his passing, and therefore does not reflect upon his death. We here at MJ are revisiting his stellar filmic work and hope you do the same.
This review contains spoilers
Around the halfway point in this film (right around the bit concerning Anton Yelchin's arm, to be more precise) I had to make a conscious effort to remind myself it was only a movie. The greatest triumph of Jeremy Saulnier's positively gnarly third film is its intense realism. A struggling punk band gets a badly-needed gig playing at a venue in the middle of nowhere. The business (a front for a drug operation) is owned by Neo-Nazis and frequented by skinheads, however, and when the members accidentally stumble upon a scene they were not supposed to see, what was originally an attempt to earn some gas money turns into a terrifying fight for survival.
The violence is brutal and intense but never devolves into pageantry or farce. Oftentimes movies like this make the mistake of conveying violence seemingly for the sake of itself, but the violence here is innately connected to the mood and arc of the story. It even brought me a kind of catharsis by the end -- hey, we all need a release sometimes, and the violence portrayed here is the kind most of us will never experience firsthand but have imagined many times. In this context, the film manages to make this all seem like something that could really happen, no matter how nightmarish (and that Yelchin's arm could be saved with duct tape, when in reality he would have bled out pretty quickly, but this is probably the only instance where you really need to suspend disbelief). The kids in particular almost disappear entirely into their parts, portraying the piss-poor DIY life of young punk rockers with stark conviction, and they almost make you care about them too much before the story takes a nauseating descent into darkness; their demises are difficult to stomach. Imogen Poots was a standout to me, her exceedingly memorable mullet being the tip of the iceberg (the "careful now" scene was almost instantly iconic, and I longed for the sudden pitch blackness to drag on a bit longer, as it stoked the intensity of a fire built on tension that was already burning bright) but in general this cast was just phenomenal all around.
The other major triumph here is the subversive nature of the storytelling. Our expectations are constantly challenged and upended by a narrative that refuses to hit conventional marks, and the effect ratchets up the tension until you're positively squirming and cringing at not only what transpires but whatmight transpire still, for every clue seems to be a red herring as the movie jerks you around like a roller coaster concocted by a madman.
I had particularly high expectations for Patrick Stewart's villainous Darcy that were not quite literally met in the way I was expecting, though through no fault of his (he's one of my favorite actors, and this performance is no exception to his greatness). I blame the marketing, specifically a few of the trailers that frame him as far more overtly evil than he necessarily is in the context of the film itself. He never really enacts much violence in the actual fabric of the story, rather he leaves the dirty work to his Neo-Nazi proteges, and his sinister ruthlessness is much more subtle. I was ready for him to do some crazy shit, in other words, but instead the worst of the body horror was done by others. The climax in particular (and his death) makes a point about him that also dulls much of the marketing's insistence on his almost supernatural evil.
In fact, this movie makes many nuanced points about humanity's shortcomings and our unshakable grayness, a point I personally appreciate in any narrative that focuses on the ills we do to each other. It's sort of the third installment in Saulnier's "inept protagonist trilogy" about normal dudes getting in over their heads. And this film makes us feel like we, too, are in way over our heads, and akin to our poor unfortunate protagonists, we're just gonna have to ride it out till the end. What a fucking ride.