Being on tour isn’t nearly as glamorous as most people think, especially for a small band, or one clinging to DIY aesthetics and ideals. Sure, there are moments, but there is also sleeping in vans, breaking down, shows that fall through, driving 12 hours for shows that fall through, and, perhaps most disheartening, driving 12 hours to play a show where three people who don’t give a shit show up and leave in the middle of the set. I’ve been on some terrible tours over the years, played some god-awful disasters, but never has a show or tour sucked as hard as the one in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room.
Last time out, Saulnier took on the revenge narrative with Blue Ruin, a crowd-funded, no-frills indie that subverted the tropes and toyed with expectations of that particular subgenre. With Green Room, he takes at shot at the self-contained horror thriller where a group of protagonists, trapped in a single location, are besieged by evil forces from outside. The easiest point of comparison is John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, and while there are parallels, Saulnier puts his own electric stamp on the style, crafting an exciting, almost unbearably tense, brutally violent scorcher of a film.
Members of the young punk band The Ain’t Rights—Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reese (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner)—are at the end of their collective rope. Thousands of miles from home, after yet another less than inspiring show, they decide to pack it in and head back to Arlington, Virginia. The problem is they’re in Oregon, have no money, and siphoning gas is only going to get them so far. When they score a last minute slot on a bill, it turns out they’re playing for a bar full of surly white supremacists led by Darcy (a chilling, diabolical Patrick Stewart like you’ve never seen him). Of course, being a snotty punk rock band, what do they do? They start their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Who doesn’t love to poke a bear?
While that doesn’t endear them to the crowd, they go from a shitty situation to one that’s more holy-shit-fuck-we’re-gonna-die-real-soon when they stumble across a murder they shouldn’t have seen and find themselves trapped in a room, surrounded on all sides by pissed off, increasingly desperate racist goons, and fighting for their lives.
Green Room takes its time to lay the groundwork. Saulnier, and his fantastic crew of young actors, captures being on this sort of tour perfectly: how you’re stuck with no options, how an entire band can love each other and hate each other in the same moment, how you’re bored as hell, trying to amuse yourself, and just kill time. The cast is obviously having a lot of fun, and the core kids have a chemistry and personality that provides an emotional investment in what happens next, which makes watching their struggle to survive even more harrowing.
The supporting players, including Macon Blair, Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein, and Kai Lennox, all do nice work, and help paint an interesting picture of the power dynamics and interpersonal relationships within the cabal of violent, woodsy white separatists. As strange as that sounds. Imogen Poots, as an expendable young Nazi hanger-on who finds herself in the same perilous position as The Ain’t Rights, shines in grim fashion. Her Amber is rough and caustic, hiding deep wounds and rage under her leather-tough exterior. And she’ll make you think twice the next time you pick up a box cutter.
Patrick Stewart, however, is the true star of the show. As Darcy, the cool, calculating leader, he’s vicious and cunning, and having a complete and utter blast playing against type. He’s kind of evil Professor X, smart and manipulative, an almost-compassionate father figure, and he plays his part with an insidious glee that sends shivers up your spine.
Like he did with Blue Ruin, Saulnier presents a more grounded, realistic take on a subgenre with Green Room. It’s easy to watch movies and say, “I’d to this, I’d do that, here’s what they should do,” but we all know if the shit really went south on us, we’d run around flapping our arms and flailing without a clue how to proceed. The Ain’t Rights are scared kids in a situation they never imagined, and that’s precisely how they act. Cornered as they are, they don’t instantly become brilliant tacticians or masters of strategy and improvising makeshift weapons. They make bad decisions because they’re terrified, under incredible pressure, and surrounded. With no idea what to do, they freak the fuck out. It’s not particularly cinematic, but it is very visceral and real and authentic.
There’s much more going on in Green Room than what happens on screen. Cryptic references to earlier events indicate a larger portrait that you don’t see, and while I quite enjoy the mystery at times, knowing that there’s a whole textured world out there, it does also feel a bit too light on occasion. The Ain’t Rights’ motives are clear, but what drives Darcy remains obtuse. While there’s more in play than just a bunch of vicious thugs, and I don’t want the movie to over explain, but there are moments when you can’t help but wish for a bit more depth as the movie opts for violence and savagery over thematic density.
From where I stand, however, that’s a minor quibble. Green Room is a compact, streamlined, punch-in-the-teeth thriller. Unflinchingly vicious—seriously, if the sight of blood or the sound of broken bones gives you pause, this may not be the movie for your—the pace propels you relentlessly forward, and Green Room once again marks Jeremy Saulnier as a gritty, down-and-dirty auteur. [Grade:]
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