I once had a writing professor who lambasted a story I wrote about an older man getting jumped in the men’s room. He said it had “unjustified violence”, meaning that I hadn’t properly set up the scene. Certainly, many movies feature climactic scenes of barbarity, but the best ones — unlike my story — prepare viewers for what’s to come, whether obviously or subtly.
This year’s Toronto Film Festival offers multiple films built on impending violence. One of these is the 2015 Palme d’Or winner, Jacque Audiard’s Dheepan, which doesn’t so much prepare us for the violence as promised us it’s coming.
A soldier fighting in Sri Lanka’s civil war, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) becomes disillusioned, leaves the army, and makes his way to a refugee camp. Here he meets Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who suggests they kidnap an orphan girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), in order to pose as a family. Using fake passports, they are sent to Paris, where they face the difficult process of cultural assimilation while learning to live with one another, fearful of anyone discovering their secret.
The fascinating first hour of the film focuses on Dheepan adapting to his new circumstances, sorting out daily details and social expectations, as when he feels forced to laugh when with other people, even as he doesn’t understand the joke he’s hearing. He eventually gets a job as a caretaker for an apartment building outside the city. It’s a rough and tumble place, with rival drug operations bearing down on each other from opposite buildings. Late at night, unable to sleep, Dheepan stands in his kitchen looking out the window at the nighttime activities, as if he’s watching TV.
Eventually, Dheepan and Yalini’s relationship turns more trusting, and both begin to care for poor Illayaal, who has her hands full learning French and going to school. Before the three can enjoy their progress, however, Audiard changes gears. Suddenly the turf skirmishes between the dealers break out into full-scale war, with Dheepan and his family literally positioned between them. Still a soldier at heart, Dheepan is soon embroiled in the dispute, and in a climactic scene, he must shoot and hack his way through a building stairway in order to save Yalini.
This scene is beautifully shot, the camera following Dheepan’s feet as he climbs the stairs through the swirling smoke, dispatching enemies with accomplished ease, but it also undermines what the film has set up, making the theme seem twisty. Does Dheepan’s former life ensure his survival or doom him to ongoing violence? The big action payoff undercuts the quiet, sweetly substantial story the movie has established. Turning Dheepan into an action hero feels like a failure of nerve and an unearned plot turn.
Green Room, which screened as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness program, sets up for the violence to come from its start. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the former DP who made Blue Ruin in 2013, the film follows the travails of the Ain’t Rights, a punk band making their way from gig to gig in a battered van fueled by gas they siphon from other vehicles found along the way.
After one such show goes belly-up, their apologetic college-student promoter promises a better opportunity in the Oregon wilderness outside of Portland, where his cousin works at a large venue. What he doesn’t mention, and the band doesn’t find out until too late, is that the venue is a skinhead white supremacist stronghold.
Undaunted, the band plays their set (opening with the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”), and prepares to take their money and leave. At this point, they’re witness to darkly violent scene and they’re confined to their dressing room until the local group’s leader, Darcy (Patrick Stewart), can figure out what to do with them. Trapped, the four band members, including the soft-spoken Pat (Anton Yelchin) and the terrified Sam (Alia Shawkat), attempt to escape without being gunned down or gored by the club owner’s vicious dogs.
Taut and brutal, the movie reminds us that Saulnier is a gifted storyteller, able to establish character histories and interpersonal relations with the briefest of exchanges or gestures. These moments also create convincing milieus, before the film rips everything to shreds, in events that are both surprising and, in some horrific way, expected.
As with Blue Ruin, Saulnier both stylizes and dirties up the violence in Green Room, less for exploitive purposes — though these remain a factor — than to make the broken bones and gore gritty enough to unsettle us. When people suffer wounds in his films, we feel their pain. And yet, he’s also strikingly unsentimental about his characters, putting them at continued risk or dispatching them so we can’t ever be certain what’s coming next. Green Room doesn’t offer a slow build for its violence but — my former professor would be pleased — that violence doesn’t come out of nowhere either.