[94 minutes. R. Director: Jeremy Saulnier]
The visceral experience of Green Room is that of having an ice-cold fist throttle your spine, dislocate your jaw, and twist your nerve endings for 90 relentless minutes. In an attestation to its punk pedigree, it takes the straightforward lyrics of the Circle Jerks’ “Back Against the Wall” and makes them vulnerable (and often mutilated) flesh. Green Room never relents long enough to bask in its myriad ironies, and thus underlines the difference between it and most other postmodern genre efforts that stop to wink at the audience.
That’s not to say its influences aren’t as abundant as they are disparate (and merit their own analysis), but that writer-director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Murder Party) isn’t content to merely churn out stale variations on the films that shaped his directorial sensibility. In that regard, he’s much closer to Quentin Tarantino than the ghetto of indie-film poseurs who slavishly recycle the most influential movies of their youth in the most unimaginative manner possible.
To address the finer details of Green Room’s plot is to venture into perilous and plentiful spoiler territory, but there is much to appreciate and gape at (aesthetically and thematically). This is as visceral as the most effectively brutal efforts of the horror genre, and that is something that can only be verified by experiencing it first-hand. Saulnier’s Blue Ruin bristled with a quiet, mounting intensity that surpassed the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men; the surprise here is that Green Room not only meets the oft-unbearable suspense of those films, but exceeds it.
The Ain’t Rights are a suburban punk band in the midst of a tour that isn’t going very well (the opening scene has their van wiped out in a cornfield). After meeting with a ‘zine editor and radio DJ who interviews them about their “desert island bands” and lack of social media presence (which not all of the members agree on), he hooks them up with a lame, mid-day gig for peanuts, followed by a more lucrative – yet foreboding – proposal: a couple hundred bucks to play at a skinhead club in the middle of nowhere. When band member Pat (Anton Yelchin) accidentally stumbles across the aftermath of a violent act, these middle-class suburban punks are thrust into a fight for survival against seemingly insurmountable odds.
For as provoking as the scenario and characters are, Saulnier doesn’t turn the film into a heavy-handed, American History X-styled treatise on the wages of hate. Shock-value epithets don’t gratuitously worm their way into the dialogue, nor do our protagonists ever offhandedly toss around the word “Nazi” (outside of a rendition of the Dead Kennedys’ song, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”). Ever the sly craftsman, Saulnier is fully aware he’s creating a genre picture, and by not making any overt statements, ventures into subtext that is rather fascinating.
Green Room is a double threat: a relentless machine of suspense and violence, and one that makes you think well after all the corpses have been accounted for.
Patrick Stewart plays Darcy, the articulate owner of the club, an even-toned yet methodical man who, one could argue, is overqualified to be presiding over such a dump – until you realize he doesn’t just book shows, but offers “educational” workshops on race under the same roof. (For an unexpected corollary to Green Room, check out the unsettling documentary Welcome to Leith.) In an early scene that represents the film’s turning point, he delivers his dialogue muffled, behind a door, while a terrified Pat is forced into a negotiation with no positive outcome. The lack of Stewart in visual form actually makes the exchange that much more gut-clenching. He may be spinning bullshit, but he makes bullshit sound like something you’d want to concede to all the same.
While the presence of Stewart is a coup, it could have been easily viewed as a stunt if the rest of Green Room’s cast didn’t also perform at a higher level. The other characters come across as amalgamations of the “desperate scenario survivor type”: Yelchin fares strongly as the coward of the group; Joe Cole renders a muscular hothead without being an out-and-out asshole; and Alia Shawkat (The Final Girls) and Callum Turner (Victor Frankenstein) represent the more level-headed voices of reason. Imogen Poots’s (the Fright Night remake) character and her motives are a bit more complicated, but she quickly forms an alliance with the group out of necessity.
Certain films, like Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) and James Merendino’s SLC Punk (1998) capture elements of the punk subculture in ways that still resonate today. To a great extent, a lack of Hollywood sanitization is what makes these films hum with a distinct countercultural energy. And Green Room is no exception – it doesn’t simply make its central characters punk rockers as a bit of throwaway edginess (though “Punks [sic] Not Dead” would be a great tagline), but uses that to augment the driving, spitfire pacing.
Furthermore, Saulnier finds clever ways of integrating the DIY aesthetic that has informed punk since its inception. Beginning with the innocuous image of a hand-drawn flier announcing the Ain’t Rights’ fateful gig to the use of Sharpies to draw on war paint, to improvised weapons (including a broken fluorescent bulb), and the use of duct tape as a wound dressing, these characters make MacGyver-esque use of the limited items at their disposal.
And those ironic references to bands of yesteryear emblazoned on white T-shirts (Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat), graffiti (The Damned), window sticker (Fugazi), and within the dialogue (The Misfits) actually complements the situation and characters. Before any threat presents itself, Shawkat puts on a record by Fear (we only hear the first few seconds, though – as if to say, “let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here”).
Despite the whipcrack pacing, it’s not used to cover up gaps in logic, plot, and character (this isn’t Transformers IX). On the contrary: hero and villain alike are canny and clever within their respective circumstances: from Darcy’s cockroach-like thugs to the outgunned punks, I never once found myself thinking – as I do with many other horror films – “Why are you being so STUPID?”
The music, by Brooke and Will Blair, is also interesting, opting for droning ambient noise (reminiscent of Mica Levi’s minimalist soundscape for Under the Skin) over a more obvious, rat-a-tat punk score. This not only intensifies the ominous silence of certain scenes, but creates a pervasive atmosphere of dread that contributes to the overall visceral impact. The way the film deals largely in desaturated earth tones also adds to the dank and dire mood.
But perhaps most notable of all the notable aspects of Green Room is its raising of the bar for films in the “trapped room” subgenre. Earlier this year, 10 Cloverfield Lane performed a similar feat, daring audiences to embrace a limited setting and a script that refused to kowtow to weary genre conventions. As with John Goodman’s quietly menacing performance in that film, Stewart’s villainous turn here should make those cobweb-festooned Academy voters sit up and take notice. At the halfway point of 2016, the horror genre definitely ain’t fucking around.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) measures his life in coffee spoons, and writes reviews once every couple years at numbviews.livejournal.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast, and can be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.
Crash Palace Productions and THE LAST KNOCK podcast extends its condolences to the family and friends of Anton Yelchin. We will miss him.
(Photo from Monkeygoosemag.)