Written and directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Alia Shawkat k
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"We're not keeping you--you're just staying."
Many films try to capture a punk ethos, but when I say Green Room does so, I mean it grabs the punk zeitgeist by the motherfucking throat. There’s punk and then there’s this, a mean, hardcore meat-grinder that thrashes like a chaotic whirlwind of crunching guitar riffs and pounding bass-lines. Like any good punk, it’s scrappy and weirdly good-hearted—but it also doesn’t mind telling you to fuck off when necessary. It doesn’t particularly care if you like what’s happening on-screen, nor does it give a damn about what audiences might find soothing. Green Room is an authentically unpleasant film, albeit one that finds a rousing sensibility amidst its carnage. It’s the sort of film that finds beauty in a sweaty mass of frenzied punks but also isn’t hesitant to leave them in a pool of their own blood.
Director Jeremy Saulnier holds no illusions about his ragtag band of punks, a four-piece outfit dubbed the Ain’t Rights. Fiercely resistant to courting the mainstream, they’ve shunned any social media presence, living by an ethos that demands their music be a pure experience, one that can only be sought out and found in obscure gigs. Accordingly, the quartet practically lives in their van, bumming from town to town, siphoning gas when necessary. These are hardly ideal conditions, nor are the Ain’t Rights ideal people—as you hear them ramble on about their art, they almost border on hipster, “indier-than-thou” clichés that maybe need to be knocked down a peg.
But there’s something admirable about their scrappiness and resolve. When one of their gigs falls through, they remain determined to melt an audience’s face, even if they have to act on a shady tip that takes them out to the wilds of the rural Pacific Northwest. Specifically, they find themselves booked at a grungy little white supremacist joint, where the cramped hallways teem with skinheads and the walls are scrawled with SS insignia. Seedy doesn’t begin to describe it. Undaunted, the Ain’t Rights—at the suggestion of guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin)—kick off their set with a screeching cover of the Dead Kennedys’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” much to the hostile bemusement of a crowd that begins launching beer bottles at them.
Saulnier takes an interesting approach here: despite the band’s confrontational set, the audience gives itself over to the music, losing themselves in a frenzy that’s captured in an almost balletic slow-motion sequence. There’s an odd, incongruent grace to watching these Neo-Nazis thrash about, almost to the point that it’s subtly unsettling: you feel as though you’ve been knocked off-balance by this willingness by both the Ain’t Rights and their audience to honor the musical pact between them, their differences be damned. You can’t quite shake the fact that you’re watching a bunch of white supremacists, though.
That reality snaps back to the forefront after the band’s set. Remarkably, the Ain’t Rights mostly avoid any further incident until Pat slinks back into the titular green room to retrieve a forgotten phone, only to stumble upon a murder scene. Suddenly, all of that latent tension from before begins to rumble ominously: having witnessed this, the band isn’t allowed to leave the premises as their suddenly inhospitable hosts scurry about, vaguely plotting how to handle the situation. Club owner Darcy (a sinister Patrick Stewart) descends upon the scene and attempts a diplomatic approach until the band begins to sense they might not survive without a fight, at which point all hell breaks loose.
Essentially Assault on Precinct 13 reimagined inside of a mosh pit where Cujo has been let loose, Green Room is an intense flurry of violence, a masterfully orchestrated bloodbath that thrives on both suspense and bloodshed. It’s survival horror in its purest form, as the band (plus a new acquaintance in Imogen Poots’s Amber) finds themselves trapped in a building with Darcy’s loyal pack of red-laced “true believers,” who have been dispatched with simple instructions: keep the Ain’t Rights from reaching the building’s sole exit. While there are some terrifically scripted twists and turns to the proceedings (mostly relating to the reason for the instigating murder), Green Room is a straightforward, razor-sharp exercise in hack-and-slash brutality.
Because of this, Green Room isn’t exactly a rumination of violence like Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin, a film that traced one man’s descent into self-destruction. Rather, Green Room is almost gleefully sadistic in the way it subjects its audience to a queasy blend of ultra-grisly yet astounding gore effects. I found myself both in awe of and recoiling from just how staggering the effects are, particularly when one character’s arm is nearly sliced off and is left practically dangling from the bone. Every instance of flesh-ripping, bone-shatter violence is impactful: dogs tear throats asunder, while shotgun blasts reduce heads to splattered chunks of viscera. This is a real banger, a symphony of machete swipes and gunshots that consistently highlights the viciousness of every act.
Calling it a roller coaster ride is both obvious and odd, yet completely apt: I not only found myself bracing and clutching at each act of violence, but also at the shifty character developments. Stewart—who has seemingly been cast with the express purpose of turning an viewer’s expectation its head—arrives with a genteel exterior that almost convinces you he may let the Ain’t Rights walk away under certain conditions. The bottom eventually drops out from beneath the audience, however, leaving them to completely fret for this scrappy little band, who (in true punk fashion) become endearing in their rebellion.
I love Pat’s willingness to tell a group of skinheads to fuck off, and I understand the cold feet he gets when finally taking the stage—but I love Sam’s (Alia Shawkat) response to the hesitation even more: “go through with it, or I’ll them you’re Jewish.” Likewise, I love how Reece (Joe Cole) refuses to take any shit, even from the burly bouncer (Eric Edelstein) that holds them at gunpoint. All pretentions and judgment aside—sure these four siphon gas and like to have dumb conversations about “desert island bands” and the like—this is a close-knit group that doesn’t deserve to be caught in a neo-Nazi hellhole. You want nothing more than to see them claw their way out of this grimy squalor, covered in skinhead blood if necessary—and it’s just at this point that Saulnier make it clear that he’s not interested in what you want.
Rather, Green Room is more concerned with subjecting its audience to a series of peaks and valleys, or the triumph and agonies of the punk experience: one minute, the Ain’t Rights are eagerly giving an interview for an underground rock station, the next they’re playing a set in a shitty, small-town diner in front of a handful of people. That dynamic range is compounded within the walls of the skinhead lair, where fleeting glimpses of hope (a hole in the floor that only burrows further into the place, for example) are quickly lost in heaps of bloodshed. Saulnier rides this wave throughout Green Room, never allowing the audience to become too comfortable or complacent.
This is most evident in the presence of Amber, the righteous, chelsea-haired ass-kicker that finds herself fighting for her own life alongside the Ain’t Rights. While she claims she’s not a white supremacist and intends to disassociate from the neo-Nazis surrounding her, she still certainly holds some troubling views that make her a perfectly #problematic character. As you watch her assess and take control of the situation, you can’t help but love that this woman emerges as an avatar of rebellion and vengeance. She’s not here to serve as an impromptu love interest, nor is she a damsel-in-distress; no, Amber is the type of final girl who isn’t just content to survive—she has to burn everything to the ground too, and it’s not as if Saulnier judges her for it. She’s one of my favorite characters in a movie this year, even if my conscience wouldn’t allow me to forget that she hangs out at a skinhead joint.
Such a topsy-turvy, uneasy dynamic captures the punk outlook that guides Green Room; there’s a brief moment at the end when it looks like Saulnier will cast some sort of bleak judgment or end on a satisfying (if not cliché) declaration. Neither is in the cards, however, as the film’s final line is an antagonistic punctuation mark: “tell somebody who gives a shit,” a blunt pronouncement that might as well double as the film’s mission statement—and I can’t help but admire it even more for ruthlessly refusing to ever let the audience off the hook.
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