Back in 2013, Jeremy Saulnier released Blue Ruin, the indie hit of the summer. It didn’t feature the stock types of characters you get in most films, it featured the more average folk you get in real America. They just had better dialogue. The situation might have been just as farfetched as most movies, but it was presented with a mundanity that made it feel grounded. The Hollywood gloss was there, it was just camouflaged. He also wasn’t afraid to show an audience what a gun really does to a human being. This is something mainstream cinema has painstakingly tried to make us forget. The result was a genre film that felt like a true crime docudrama. I sang those praises in 2013 and for this review of Green Room I will sing them all again.
Green Room is certainly a similar film to Blue Ruin. It has a well-worn premise but presents it with an unusual flavour, enlivening the concept. Punk band, The Ain’t Rights, are touring the Pacific Northwest on a budget that couldn’t buy them an out of date happy meal. After being screwed over for their last paid gig they begrudgingly take an offer to perform in front of some white supremacists at a Nazi bar so they can make it home without having to French kiss any more petrol tanks.
While they play Dead Kennedy’s Nazi Punks Fuck Off to a room full of armed Nazi punks (possibly the most dangerous thing they do in the whole film) the frontman for the headlining act is busy killing a bar regular to their music. They stumble upon the crime scene while trying to retrieve a forgotten phone and are held captive in the titular green room. The night descends into bloody chaos as the group refuse to die willingly. Their struggle becomes less about survival and more about taking the skinheads down with them.
The film is like a good, old-school punk album. It’s dark, grimy, rough as fuck, and it indulges in the macabre and the taboo. And in the distant darkness you can just about see a faint glimmer of humanity. The aesthetics have a stark realist quality to them. The punk isn’t sanitised to make it more appealing to an average audience. The band look just like the motley crew of stoners and loners lined up outside of your sixth form’s practice rooms. The club is a convincing-as-hell beer-drenched, piss-smelling shit hole. The music is barely audible and the lyrics are indecipherable. Most importantly, the shockingly gruesome and uncompromising practical effects have a gooeyness that gives them a you-could-reach-out-and-touch-them kind of tangibility.
The plot constantly keeps you on your toes with peaks of loud violence breaking an ever present quiet. Saulnier keeps the volatility of the situation a constant threat as twists and turns appear throughout the siege. Getting you through it all is the plucky underdogs trying to fight their way out of this hellish foxhole. Defeat weighs heavy on them but they never succumb to it, their adrenaline giving them the fight to carry on, their punk sensibilities keeping them defiant, and their raw primal instincts finding perverse joy in the slaughter.
The cast is great fun to watch. They walk a thin line, never descending into caricature or self-parody, but never being so realistic they stop being entertaining. Brit pairing Joe Cole and Callum Turner are the yin and yang of angst, one ready to turn ballistic at any moment, the other constantly looking inward but forever keeping cool. Alia Shawkat is a breeze as Sam. Anton Yelchin is the band’s thinker and voice when the vocalist has nothing to say. His journey from soft spoken artist to fully functioning Rambo replacement is exhilarating. The transition isn’t the smoothest, but the humour you can derive from it means he doesn’t lose his humanity.
Imogen Poots plays the dead girl’s friend and is a witness to the crime. She retains a certain renegade charm, although she sometimes veers into the whole strong-female-character-written-by-a-man territory, where Saulnier gets in danger of confusing endearing individualism with abrasive annoyance. But she keeps her vulnerability by never losing the look of vacant shock on her face, like she’s constantly seeing her friend’s corpse in front of her.
The club she finds herself barricaded into is owned by Patrick Stewart’s Darcy Banker. It has been said that his White Supremacist boss is the scene stealer. This is true, but more so because his face is such a familiar sight. Once you get over that recognition just let his quiet menace lord its influence over the rest of the film. It’s a much more subdued performance than they hype will have you believe, but the film benefits from no one person trying to be the centre of attention.
They all act selflessly so that the real star of the show can shine: the film’s unique setting. Liberals holding off against a fascist horde may not be too original amongst horror film concepts, but given the fact that the bogeyman in this flick is one we see on the news every now and again, it creates a very real dread. Although I will give a huge shout out to Macon Blair (the fantastic lead in Blue Ruin) for being the emotional centre of a group of Oregon Skinheads, and still managing to somehow be sympathetic.
Jeremy Saulnier has done it again. He’s created a well-crafted thriller that seems straight out of small town America’s police files. The grounded story keeps its tension to garrotting level tautness with the stillness in the dark and the tight angles making the claustrophobia ever more suffocating. It’s a punk rock horror film where the loudest and most threatening noise made is the deafening silence, while you know that somewhere in the night, Satan is hiding.
Dir: Jeremy Saulnier
Prd: Macon Blair, Victor Moyers, Anish Savjani, Brian Johnston, Neil Kopp
Scr: Jeremy Saulnier
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, Macon Blair
DOP: Sean Porter
Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Run Time: 95 minutes