Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a smart, mean and brutal thriller that has an undeniably grimy vibrancy. At its heart, it can trace back its origins to countless westerns, zombie slashers, crime films, or pretty much any story that features scrappy underdogs holed up in a ramshackle outpost surrounded by hostiles. In the past, the others have been Native Americans, monsters, street gangs, aliens, etc. Here, they’re neo-Nazis marshalling themselves to eliminate a punk band that’s locked itself in a room after strolling into a classic wrong place/wrong time situation.
So far, so ordinary, at least on paper. But being a good filmmaker is often like being a good singer: delivering an old hit in such a way that it makes you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time, and that’s exactly what Saulnier does with Green Room, substituting our memories of classics gone by with well-constructed storytelling and characters, an eye for smart and telling details, and a way for ratcheting up tension to sickening levels. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart. But if you’re game, what a ride it is.
The setup is nimble in its execution. We meet a punk band from D.C., The Ain’t Rights, trying desperately to survive. They siphon gas to make a gig in upstate Oregon, and when they get there they end up mumbling through interviews in exchange for crash pads, and then screaming their music at a lunch crowd for $6 apiece. A contact puts them in touch with a place near Portland who might pay. “Ultra right-wing,” the guys grimaces. “Well, actually, ultra left-wing.”
The band arrives at a dingy, depressed-looking bar in the middle of the woods, littered with swastikas and Confederate flags. The feeling of “let’s just get this over with” lingers over every uncomfortable look. “I have a dumb idea,” says Pat (Anton Yelchin), the lead singer. The group comes out and starts their set with “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” thoroughly angering the crowd before quickly winning them back with the next song. It’s a dumb idea that sort of pays off, unlike Pat’s next dumb idea, which is to barge back into the green room after Sam (Alia Shawkat), the guitarist, forgets her phone. While they were playing, violence has happened, and now there’s a dead girl’s corpse with a knife in its head. The club manager herds Pat, Sam and also bassist Reece (Joe Cole) and drummer Tiger (Callum Turner) back into the green room. “We’re not keeping you,” he says firmly. “You’re just staying.”
The situation escalates. A gun changes hands back and forth and the power dynamic changes within the room between captive and captor, but that still leaves the hostile elements on the other side of the door, personified by the club owner, the gruff and cold Darcy (Patrick Stewart, in a sublime piece of non-stunt casting stunt casting). Darcy is smart and slides into practical, crisis management mode, already thinking about the most efficient way to dispose of the kids. His plan has a perfect, procedural sense to it as he dismisses the bar crowd, takes stock of his men and resources, and starts mentally calculating what’s the smoothest murder scenario to stage for the police. Meanwhile, the group starts to slowly understand how much trouble they’re in, despite the faux-reassuring words of Darcy from the other side. The only other innocent in the room, Amber (Imogen Poots), was friends with the dead girl and knows the scene well enough to offer advice, all of it bleak.
From here, Saulnier (who also scripted) uses the setup as a platform for a clockwork chess game with moves and counter-moves, where strict attention is paid to resources, time, money and wits, all while the tension is wrung out of every frame. His plot moves in ingenious ways as the mangnitude of the trap these five kids are in grows and grows: in one of the story’s neatest movements, a desperate attempt to improve their situation ends up doing little but supplying the kids with unwanted information that worsens it considerably. Saulnier also refuses to let his characters congeal into cookie-cutter shapes, or become hardcore action heroes, or make speeches where they explain their motivations. Realistic—if heightened–behavior informs character here, not monologues where people share philosophies or backstories. Even Poots’ Amber, who offers dry commentary, seems not like artificial comic relief but like a certain kind of person in shock and trying to cope.
But despite all the trappings of a genre exercise (and it is well-done at that – Saulnier is a skilled director capable out of conjuring unease out of thin air), Green Room has more on its mind. It humanizes its villains, to a degree, creating not a thinly-sketched supporting cast out of an American History X casting call, but a group of people who have their own rules, concerns and dramas. “This is not a party, it’s a movement,” says the grandfatherly Darcy at one point to a gathering of folks, and there’s sly commentary when Darcy and his manager have to look to true believers in their newer ranks to get things done. Murder is a game for younger men, it seems. The elders have to resolve having a white supremacist philosophy with keeping the lights on and keeping the books balanced. Yet none of this is spelled out—the movie’s most shocking quality might be the way it takes volatile sociopolitical material and just bakes it all into the story, rather than writing on-the-nose dialogue that addresses it.
Stewart’s gripping performance is underplayed and controlled, and while Saulnier doesn’t waste the shock value of seeing Captain Picard hurling a racial epithet, he and Stewart create a nuanced character who seems weary and sad but you understand why others would flock to him and seek his approval. When one of the goons brings along a pack of attack dogs, the parallels between the men and dogs’ relationships with their respective masters is clear, especially with the quiet point made that cruelty is taught. These are touches that show thought, and it’s a rare to see a thriller be so circumspect about its violence, and what it’s trying to say with it, right down to the final scene.
Saulnier’s last film, Blue Ruin, was a terrific and tense deconstruction of revenge stories that stressed cyclical violence and collateral damage (his lead from Blue Ruin, Macon Blair, turns up again here as a panicky club manager with a truly inconvenient conscience). Clearly the effects of violence are things that weigh on his mind, and with Green Room he’s made a tight and engaging piece that works on multiple. What a refreshing change of pace, when so many thrillers don’t seem to work on any.