A Gut-Wrenching and Spectacular Thrill Ride
Following up his 2013 revenge feature Blue Ruin, writer and director Jeremy Saulnier explores another tale of ordinary people caught in a maelstrom of violence with the thriller Green Room. Here, a broke and hungry punk band known as The Ain’t Rights land at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar in the Oregon woods after getting word that it will pay them the meager money that they need. But the situation quickly goes south when they stumble upon the aftermath of a murder and hole up inside the bar’s tiny green room as neo-Nazi forces descend upon them. The results are fraught with danger and unrelenting tension that is repeatedly punctuated by shocking violence.
If that seems like a lean plot, that’s because it is. Saulnier is intent on telling a very focused, very stripped down story that wrings every ounce of tension from its central conflict. In fact, Green Room rarely strays from its claustrophobic dressing room and when it does, the scope does not get much larger than the surrounding bar. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and the threat of horrific danger lurking so close at hand that the shabby, Confederate flag-festooned green room begins to seem like a sanctuary amidst the violence, even when the protection it provides is illusory at best.
Much like Blue Ruin, Saulnier is fixated on the realistic and terrifying consequences of violence. There’s not a moment of glamour or fun to be gleaned from the violent actions that are both committed by and to the band of survivors that lead the film, even though Saulnier’s use of lighting and color make this an impeccably shot movie. But that’s not to say that Green Room is simply a film meant to punish its viewers and chastise them for watching a film that revolves around violence. Rather, Saulnier works to create a far more human dynamic within every frame of his film while also indulging in the genre trappings that inform the action of the story.
Through small moments and the authentic punk music that begins the film, we quickly grow to connect with the protagonists of the story. These characters are led by the late Anton Yelchin, who puts in another deftly human and utterly believable performance as Pat, bassist for The Ain’t Rights and de facto leader of the group once everything goes to hell. Every cut, every bruise, every loss is etched into his performance from start to finish, making him into an equally broken and heroic lead. He’s joined by Alia Shawkat as guitarist Sam, Joe Cole as drummer Reece, Callum Turner as singer Tiger, and Imogen Poots as Amber, who witnessed the murder of her friend and quickly becomes entangled in the fight to survive. Each actor brings a different element to the dynamic here, reacting in believably human ways as an impossible situation becomes worse every minute.
So when the bodies start dropping and the blood starts dripping, it hurts. And they bodies do drop hard. Saulnier has an eye for gore and terror that would make even the most hardcore Fangoria reader give due respect. It’s unflinching. It’s sudden. And it isn’t relished. The violence here is messy and chaotic to match the untrained and desperate people who are committing it. This is not a film for the faint of heart and the commitment to those gasp-inducing moments mean that Green Room is all the more terrifying. Are neo-Nazis an easy antagonist? Sure. Almost as easy to use as regular old Nazis. But the terrifying killers on the loose here are much more realistic than any B-movie slasher villain or slimy monster.
Speaking of the villains, the legion of doom on the other side of that green room door is propelled by two stellar performances – Sir Patrick Stewart as Darcy, owner of the bar and skinhead leader, and Macon Blair (star of Blue Ruin) as Gabe, the reluctant skinhead bouncer who works to fix the mess that is growing worse and worse. Stewart is often known best for his regal, moralistic roles, such as leaders of men like Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men franchise or Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here, Stewart puts that commanding presence to full use once again, only as a chillingly murderous neo-Nazi. While the pairing of actor and role may seem like an odd one, it’s an effective choice. Often seen only in glimpses giving out orders or as a disembodied voice from the other side of a door, Stewart feels powerful and scarily disaffected by the whole situation.
The same can’t be said for Blair, who oozes a human and broken nature similar to his character from Blue Ruin. Compared to the hulking, blade-wielding legions of skinhead soldiers he works with, Blair’s character immediately feels much more complicated, even with limited screentime. He’s not the only character to make surprising choices throughout the narrative and one of Green Room’s strengths is that it repeatedly upends expectations, killing characters when least anticipated and eschewing clichéd action tropes for messy, unrefined fights that terrify as much as they thrill.
While Green Room may be far more about the visceral thrills than its much deeper predecessor, Saulnier once again proves that he is a master of tension. It only takes a moment for the writer/director to make pulses pound, and he can shift from tension to release to comedy to horror to tension once again on a dime. It’s a truly spectacular mastery of tone that never loses sight of its grim underpinnings. With chills and shocks that will stick with you long after the close of the film, Green Room is a hellish descent that is most certainly worth the ride.