Jeremy Saulnier’s ‘Green Room’ is a vicious little indie thriller sure to get the heart pumping in any genre fan with a taste for carnage. Like all great thrillers, the setup is simple and the impact is deadly. The director, who showed so much promise in his 2013 breakout effort ‘Blue Ruin‘, delivers in a big, bad way with a film that might lack the depth of its predecessor, but more than makes up for it in pure visceral impact.
The movie will leave audiences shaken in the best possible sense. It won’t win awards, but it likely will win a cult audience and should leave more than a few viewers stumbling out of the theater wondering what the hell just happened to them.
The film follows a fictional punk band called The Ain’t Rights on a tour that isn’t exactly going well. We catch up with them siphoning gas, mumbling through an interview, and playing in a diner to less than a handful of disinterested patrons. The members break down into types. There’s moody bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), mouthy singer Tiger (Callum Turner), tough guy drummer Reece (Joe Cole), and level-headed guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat). By the time we meet them, they barely seem interested in playing anymore. However, they can’t even afford to get home, so they take a last minute gig at a Nazi skinhead show for gas money. Obviously that’s not a great idea and neither is playing a cover of The Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to kick off the show. But that’s not even the start of their problems. That happens when they stumble onto a murder in the green room and find themselves barricaded inside with a mysterious young punk named Amber (Imogen Poots) and one big angry skinhead. To make matters worse, the boss of the operation, Darcy Barker (Patrick Stewart), is pissed off and determined to fix this situation no matter how many more bodies are involved.
So, it’s essentially a Nazis vs. Punks siege movie and either as toe-curlingly awesome or nauseatingly dismissible as that sounds depending on your taste in entertainment. (Thankfully, I fall firmly into the former category.) Saulnier wastes little time setting things up, taking a cue from the succinctly stylish genre storytelling of John Carpenter with his own distinct brand of melancholic realism baked into the cake. The director makes you care enough for his characters and buy into their world purely to make it hurt when things come crashing down. The film’s pace is tight, but with room to breathe. It’s stylish, but not overbearingly so, just enough for maximum visceral impact. There’s gore, but not an overwhelming amount, just enough to make viewers fear what they might see next while stoking their imaginations. This movie hits hard and takes no prisoners.
Performances are strong all around. Anton Yelchin is the lead, yet no hero. Those duties fall onto Imogene Poots’ unlikely badass, and even then the difference between heroism and psychosis is merely a matter of opinion. ‘Blue Ruin’ star Macon Blair pops up as a surprising figure of empathy amongst the Nazis, but only because he’s so defeated and the lesser of many evils. Patrick Stewart’s unlikely turn as the skinhead leader seems odd at first, but makes perfect sense once it’s clear that what makes the character so frightening is his calm control in doling out violence and barking out orders. He’s done it for so long he’s practically refined in his evil, and that’s certainly a quality that Stewart can handle with ease.
The order in which the characters step up and perish is rarely predictable, and Saulnier delights throughout in setting up expectations and defying them in equal measure. One or two moments aside, ‘Green Room’ isn’t particularly more violent than the average genre yarn of this sort; it just feels more intense because he takes the time to make viewers care, punishes them for it, and then inverts conventions just when things feel momentarily comfortable.
A nice strain of morbid humor slithers through the movie to keep the dark tone from feeling too overwhelming. ‘Green Room’ is ultimately a work of entertainment that succeeds purely on surface thrills. However, the craft and care and artistry and irony make it feel more substantial. The film doesn’t have any real flaws. It’s just designed to be a grungy B-movie and never really transcends the form. For those who enjoy a good blast of shock cinema, ‘Green Room’ should deliver the dirty goods. It’s easy to overpraise this sort of movie since its goals are modest. Don’t expect the form to be reinvented or the genre to evolve from anything that Saunier tosses at the screen. However, if you feel like watching a dirty Punks vs. Nazis thriller, you’ll get exactly what you crave. It might not technically be a horror movie, but ‘Green Room’ is sure to leave you shaken like few genre efforts this year will even dare to strive for.