Film Review – Green Room
A young punk rock group makes their way through the Pacific Northwest, playing shows in hole-in-the-wall bars to disinterested crowds. Money is low – they fill their van’s tank siphoning gas from other vehicles. The tour is on the rocks, and some suggest calling the whole thing off. That is, until they get an opportunity to play one last gig. The venue is deep in the Oregon backwoods, the crowd is unruly, but the pay is good. Without many options left, the band decides to play the show. But what they thought would be a quick stop turns out to be a terrifying nightmare for everyone involved.
And so is the set up for Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015) – a sordid, ultra-violent thrill ride of a movie. This is perfect for those midnight shows populated by grind house and exploitation films. However, Saulnier (who writes and directs) displays masterful skill, turning this into more than just junk food cinema. He is quickly making a name for himself as an accomplished genre filmmaker. His previous work, Blue Ruin (2013) took the revenge story and turned it into a fascinating character study. Green Room is not as psychologically inclined – it incorporates more of a plot-heavy emphasis – but it’s done to ramp up the tension. Saulnier builds the suspense slowly. We start out leaning back in our seat but by the end we’re sitting at the edge to see what will happen.
That’s what I appreciate with Saulnier’s approach. He’s patient enough to keep us guessing through the first act. We’re introduced to the band The Ain’t Rights, with members Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner). They seem like normal, regular kids who love to play music. An early interview has them explain why they don’t have a social media presence, to which they basically answer, “Because it’s all about the music, man.” Much of their decisions are based on desperation – how they’re going to eat and where they’re going to sleep next. This is what causes them to go into the backwoods to play a show, and what causes them to fight for their lives when they realize the trouble they’re in. Soon enough, the band discovers the crowd they’re playing to is a group of anger-fueled white supremacists. Things get even worse when the band stumbles upon a dead body in the green room. Suddenly, things shift into high gear as the band lock themselves in the room with the killers trying to break in and snuff them out.
Here’s where Saulnier really showcases his skill as a storyteller. We have a premise that takes place in a limited setting with two groups battling against each other. The only exit out is through the front door and into the teeth of murderers. In lesser hands, this could have fallen into repetitiveness as the band tries different ways to escape. But Saulnier does a good job at keeping things fresh. We understand every choice our protagonists make, even if it means retreating back into the room. The cinematography (Sean Porter), editing (Julia Bloch), and music (Brooke Blair, Will Blair) have a very grimy, dirty style. Like the walls that trap the band, the film has a filthy aesthetic, and I mean that in the best way possible. Often times everything appears to be covered by a blanket of smoke, which only goes to heighten the atmosphere.
One of the big selling points is the performance by Patrick Stewart. He plays Darcy, the venue’s owner and leader of the white supremacists. This is a Patrick Stewart like we’ve rarely seen him. The gentleman-like quality he’s known for masks a brutally uncompromising character. Darcy will talk to you with a kind and reassuring voice, but if you don’t cooperate he’ll unleash the wolves without batting an eye. There isn’t much in terms of character development – Darcy is required to be the villain, and Stewart accomplishes that with a level of charm as well.
Like Darcy, there isn’t much depth for many of the characters. The motivations are relatively simple: the band wants to get out and the bad guys want to come in. The draw is in seeing the cat and mouse game. Interestingly, the narrative slows down when Saulnier tries putting some nuance in the main characters. A reoccurring bit involving the members picking their favorite bands didn’t quite land as well as it should have, and a sequence where Pat recalls a specific past event felt less like character development and more like a plot contrivance. But these are just minor nitpicks. The performances all around were very good. Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots (as a stranger the band befriends) come to the forefront as the two characters we’re most drawn to within the room. On the outside, Macon Blair stands out as Gabe, a patsy to Darcy who isn’t as bad (or good) as we initially expected him to be. Gabe’s moral dilemma makes him the most fascinating character to follow.
Make no mistake about it: this is a shockingly violent watch. Kids should not be allowed anywhere in the near vicinity, Saulnier pulls no punches in showcasing acts of bloody carnage. Throats are slit, bones are broken, and heads explode. What makes these moments all the more startling is that they don’t come in rapid succession. The violence occurs in isolated situations, but because of the infrequency when they do happen it rattles us to the core. The violence is the kind that makes your hands turn weak. Saulnier doesn’t turn the camera away, in fact he may let a shot linger a frame too long just to get the point across. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the violence, but let’s just say that one of the characters uses a boxcutter as a weapon. I’ll let your imagination take it from here.
Despite the violence being over the top (two people walked out of the theater once the mayhem ensued), Saulnier controls the tone from ever going too bleak. There is no sense of loathing to be found. Characters push back against the evil; they don’t succumb to it. That’s the key piece that distinguishes this from lesser films that simply wallow in despair. Saulnier twists the gore to amplify the black comedy. This is about as dark as you can get while also being funny. Certain lines of dialogue capture the absurdity with pitch point clarity. It’s a credit to Saulnier’s abilities that he was able to take such gruesome material and make it entertaining to sit through.
Green Room doesn’t pretend to be anything else than what it is. If you’re not the kind of person who enjoys extreme violence or pitch black humor, then this will not be to your liking. But if you are that person, you’ll find this to be right in your wheelhouse, maybe even more so. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be a cult classic.