I haven’t written a truly positive thing here in a while, so why not provide some brief thoughts on two of my favorite movies so far this year? Good idea, right? Well, here you go.
Jeremy Saulnier is only a few years into his very young career, but there is one line from his 2014 breakthrough Blue Ruin that may well prove to be the thesis for his entire career: “That’s what bullets do.”
Devoid of context, it’s a simple line, but it’s a decent summation of what has been Saulnier’s cinematic mission statement thus far. He is a filmmaker obsessed with violence, but not nearly in the same way that, say, Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with violence. He is much more interested in the dark, unromantic side of cinematic violence, and when a character says something like “that’s what bullets do,” it’s a reminder that bullets are quite literally projectiles designed kill, and Saulnier’s films take great pains to remind you of that. The characters in his films are not made to take a bullet and then get out of the frame; he wants you to feel every stab, shot and broken limb, and he’s often quite successful.
To the uninitiated, this no doubt sounds unpleasant, but to actually witness Saulnier at work is anything but. His latest, Green Room, is as much a blast as it is agonizingly tense, and it revisits many of the same themes as Blue Ruin while also branching out into new territory. Instead of being a pure revenge thriller, this film follows a struggling D.C. punk band as they agree to perform a backwoods, neo-Nazi bar gig out of financial desperation. However, after the show, they wind up locked in the venue’s green room after stumbling across something they shouldn’t have. From there, the band tries to plot an escape while the bar’s white supremacist owner (the incredible Patrick Stewart) aims to clean the situation up without witnesses.
The last hour or so of Green Room is tremendous filmmaking, providing just as many transcendent moments as disturbing ones, and it further suggests that Saulnier is pretty close to the complete package. Unlike so many indie horror/thrillers, this film is done with genuine artistry, and it plays with audience’s emotions (and stomachs) in many different ways. The violence alone means this isn’t for everyone—one moment led to an audience-wide gasp in my screening—but the miracle of it all is that none of it feels cheap in the slightest. Green Room wants to earn its bloodshed, and it does so successfully. It’s another tremendous chapter in Saulnier’s mission to Make Violence Great Again. Or at least more impactful.
Another recent release slowly expanding across the country is Everybody Wants Some!!, the latest coming-of-age experiment from Richard Linklater. He has spent his entire career exploring themes such as time and aging, and he often does so in unpretentious, character-driven fashion. (Even his opus Boyhood was fairly casual about how it went about its business.) However, never before has he explored these themes in the form of a college comedy about a baseball team looking to get laid. Billed as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused—his similarly rambling 1993 film about a collection of high school students in 1976—Everybody Wants Some!! is a delightful hangout movie about a group of people many Linklater fans might have little sympathy for: womanizing jocks.
But what a delightful group of womanizing jocks they are! The main reason for this is Linklater, of course, since he’s a man incapable of writing a one-dimensional character even if he tried. In its best moments, Everybody Wants Some!! doubles as a casual examination of late-teens/early-20s masculinity, as our central collection of bros constantly attempt to out-bro each other. As one character so aptly puts at one point, with these characters, everything is a competition. Not even a friendly Ping-Pong game can end without a paddle getting hurled in frustration.
Ultimately, though, these attempts at thematic resonance are mostly breadcrumbs left behind for the viewer to follow if they are so inclined. Everybody Wants Some!! is, first and foremost, a fond celebration of this specific kind of youthful exuberance. That overall positivity is one way it distinguishes itself from Dazed and Confused, since that film was full of characters feeling oppressed by the authority figures in their lives. There were parties, sure, but they were always one adult away from getting shut down. The universe of Everybody Wants Some!! doesn’t have much in the way of authority figures, and when they do pop in, many of their orders are promptly ignored without consequence. If these characters suffer a setback, they simply shrug it off and go in search of the next party.
Also like Dazed and Confused, Linklater populates his cast with a combination of unknowns and relatively inexperienced actors. However, the most striking performance comes from one of the most experienced actors: Glen Powell. If Blake Jenner’s Jake is the audience surrogate for this world, Powell’s Finnegan is the tour guide. He absolutely commands every scene he’s in, and within a few minutes you feel like you’re seeing a fully formed character. That’s both a credit to his performance and the universe that Linklater creates.
No matter the story he’s telling or the tone he’s shooting for, Linklater’s movies are ultimately about observing characters in their natural habitat, and finding little profundities in the things they talk about or the way they behave. In his last movie, he spent 12 years tracking the growth of a human being, and came out the other end with a masterpiece. In Everybody Wants Some!!, he’s interested only in this one weekend, as his characters look to navigate a world full of beer, sex and baseball. It may sound shallow by comparison, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any wisdom to be found.