Green Room is a relentless thriller. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier cares not for our nerves nor our tolerance of sudden, grisly violence. He does care, however, about authenticity. The suspense and the bloodletting are far from cheap, and like any great siege movie the aggressors and the besieged make realistic in-the-moment decisions that escalate the stakes. That the opposing factions are punk rockers and skinheads is a pulpy genre delight, but that heightened sensibility meshes beautifully with a grounded, gritty aesthetic. The intelligence in the craft makes it all the more exhilarating. And unsettling.
The Ain’t Rights – Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) – are sputtering, quite literally, to the end of a tour, siphoning gas for their van. After playing a show that nets them roughly $6 each, the band accepts a better paying last minute gig that has a bit of a catch: it’s at a skinhead bar in the backwoods of Oregon. Being very punk rock, The Ain’t Rights rile the crowd with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F- Off.” Talk about poking the bear. What really gets the band in the soup is witnessing a murder backstage. Confined to the green room by the neo-Nazis and their businesslike leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the band, and concert-goer turned ally Amber (Imogen Poots), must fend off attacks.
“Punks versus skinheads” is a fine enough logline for a grindhouse throwback, and while Saulnier embraces the alt-lifestyle kitsch, the clever writing, propulsive pacing, and well-staged bloody confrontations are what really packs the wallop. (Well, that and seeing what machetes, box cutters, shotguns, and attack dogs, among other things, can do the human body).
There are legitimate reasons why this isn’t a five-minute conflict with the antagonists going in guns a blazin’. How Darcy’s lieutenant Gabe (Macon Blair) handles the cops is heinous in its ingenuity. The band doesn’t just sit back and wait to become slasher movie victims, either, though they’re definitely in way over their heads. Both sides are pragmatic in their approach to the situation, which is particularly creepy with Stewart as Darcy, giving detailed orders to maim and kill like he’s reading a grocery list with his deep, authoritative voice.
Like Saulnier’s also excellent Blue Ruin, Green Room thrusts characters into a violent conflict they are ill-equipped to handle. While the previous film could be considered “deeper” as it explores the messiness of cyclical violence and fills in more character details, Green Room is just as effective at capturing a more primal, immediate life and death struggle. We get bits of character information, though we don’t need much to appreciate the dire straits and Saulnier doesn’t rely on plot for neat resolutions, which fits here. Appropriately, things get (very, very) messy. It would be completely lame – and decidedly un-punk – if, for instance, there were a specific fear a band member needed to overcome, or a convenient way out of this nightmare magically materialized.
We feel immersed in the world these groups inhabit without a lot of hand-holding. The smart use of the confined space, logical decision-making, and a lack of lulls in service of expositional nonsense make the film feel like a brisk, real-time (even though it’s not) ordeal. There are mentions of “boot parties” for the Nazis and the “purity of the music” for the punk band and the surfaces provided give us enough to fill in the gaps.
That’s not to say Green Room is thematically barren. Bubbling under the outward tension are illusions to some falsehoods in the character facades, revealed in a recurring bit regarding the true musical tastes of The Ain’t Rights and in the conditioning of the neo-Nazis to hate as some sort of Pavlovian response (kind of like their attack dogs). When all of that is stripped away, all that’s left is the most basic of instincts: survival. So there is some substance underneath the raw nerves, but whatever, Green Room is quite simply a kickass show.