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The backcountry crime lord is fast becoming the new mafia boss in terms of ruthless bad guys in modern movies. Recent films like Out of the Furnace, Winter’s Bone, and Blackway are just a few examples, and now Green Room adds to the list as a backwoods militant clan play cat and mouse with a band of punk rockers who mistakenly walk in on a brutal murder happening in the backstage green room.
Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) are members of a punk band called The Ain’t Rights. They are a rag-tag group moving from dive to dive. They get from place to place by siphoning gas and living off campfire food. Their latest show is a washout with no one attending and a measly 6 dollars and change for their effort. The show’s young promoter, who works for a college radio show and who sports a mohawk that reveals the rift between them, is interested in the mundane, like what is their desert island band and why they aren’t on social media. Because punk is about the now not the sharing, that’s why. When the band becomes angered at the lousy showing, the booker tips them onto a second gig out of town.
They arrive at a club in the woods, a bar home to a radical group of neo-Nazis led by owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart). He’s a stoic, methodic, eerily calm zealot who calls his place a movement, not a party. The band plays their set, having some fun at first before winning over the crowd. With the show over, they are escorted out of the green room when Sam says she forgot her phone. Pat goes back for it and walks in on a frightful scene. Two large men and a young woman are standing over the body of another girl. A large knife is impaled in her skull. This leads to a standoff where the band is trapped in the green room and the skinheads gather outside.
Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, whose 2013 Blue Rain is a minor miracle, Green Room follows in that film’s footsteps with a low-key, oppressiveness that is more interested in authenticity than style. Brutally violent, it isn’t gruesome but rather jarring. When the first attack comes, it isn’t done with slick choreography and camera edits. Instead it’s a group of frightened young people on one side of a door and an unseen horde of maniacs on the other. It’s raw, vicious, and disturbing. When it’s over, it’s even more terrifying. It sets the tone for the remainder and never lets up, finding creative ways to maintain that level of tension without becoming cliché or over-the-top.
We get a sense that despite the neo-Nazi’s apparent history, they are not prepared for this situation, and wanting not to draw attention to themselves, need to think carefully about how it will be presented when it’s over. That falls on Banker, who at first is the only man on the other side of the door, but soon moves outside and directs the waves of men he orders to get inside, always trying to keep it clean. When he relents and says, “We’re past forensics now,” there is a palpable chill in his voice. Not that there isn’t already a dread that lingers heavy throughout. Saulnier isn’t interested in tropes and expectations. Things occur with lightning speed and are shocking when they happen. There are no guarantees anywhere in this movie. It’s raw.
The star of the film is the late Anton Yelchin, who recently passed away. That weighs heavy on the experience. His performance here is very good, the leader of the band who isn’t so much a hero as a survivor. The young cast are all very convincing, a hardened group of youngsters who grew up too fast. The skinheads are appropriately menacing and don’t stray far from the stereotype, but that’s hardly a criticism. They are what they are, and at least there is some vulnerability to them. Stewart is terrific as their leader, his grizzled voice and calculating demeanor one easy to believe would lead men into such circumstances, not unlike his Captain Picard once did on Star Trek.
Where the film falters is the lack of chaos, which is a word I hesitate to use, simply because there is plenty of action. These punk rockers are a steely bunch, shown from the start to be calm and clever, but faced with such horrors, are like a team of highly-trained covert agents who plan with uncanny precision. There are at least two tremendously powerful moments of expertly staged tension, but much of the action concerns the members coming together in slightly unbelievable ways. They aren’t always successful, but there is a level of decision making going on that seems unlikely. There is also an absence of emotion once things kick in, especially as the body count starts to rise. That could easily be attributed to adrenaline and self-preservation, but as the core group crumbles, it seems no one really is affected. There is also a final bit of dialog that feels forced and ultimately doesn’t make much sense since the character being spoken to wasn’t there for the start of the joke.
These are minor points. What makes Green Room great is the collection. Saulnier is a smart director and uses space and lighting extremely well. There is an opening shot of two characters on a bike that is so beautiful, it reminded me of a Wes Anderson film and had me thinking this might be something really unexpected. Saulnier uses distance and movement with sublime effectiveness leading to some great payoff (pay attention to a loose dog). There is a sensational moment where we remain inside the green room while Pat, the chosen voice of the group negotiates with Banker, who for the duration is unseen, just a voice behind the door. This leads to a great line toward the end when the two meet again. It’s moments like this that make Green Room crackle. Overall, it’s a shocking and darkly funny movie, with some amusing nods to the punk culture (just look at the fantastic poster featuring a classic punk pose with a machete). This won’t disappoint.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, David W. Thompson, Mark Webber, Macon Blair, Patrick Stewart