by Paul Deines
It has been two years since the wide release of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, a deceptively spare revenge thriller fretted with escalating dread and subversive plotting. In that film, an itinerant protagonist blunders into a quest for vengeance. Events spiral beyond his control, and amid the maelstrom he finds something like grace. Blue Ruin plays like Greek tragedy. It was my favorite film of 2014.
Now comes Saulnier’s follow up, the bloody backwoods shocker Green Room.
This story centers on the Ain’t Rights, a floundering punk band from DC. When we meet the band members (including Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat), they are stalled in an Oregon cornfield en route to a pathetic gig set up by a gawky thrashcore enthusiast. The organizer, embarrassed by the poor attendance, arranges a second show for them.
Turns out this gig is at a skinhead bar teeming with seriously pissed-off neo-Nazis, and things go south when Yelchin inadvertently walks in on a killing. They find themselves trapped in the eponymous room, barricaded with a terrified local (Imogen Poots) and limited resources, and matching wits with the unsettlingly calm proprietor played by Patrick Stewart.
Saulnier, as he did with Blue Ruin, has identified a real-world horror and built around it. In his previous film, it was childhood trauma, and the idea that finding redress might perpetuate and propagate more suffering. In Green Room, it is white nationalism, cloistered in the wilderness and fueled by drugs. That this film premiered in the year of Trump lends it a verity its creator could not have anticipated.
To be sure, these protagonist have no idea what they’re up against. The standoff begins with a locked door, a gun and a hostage, but these desperate kids quickly give up any advantage they had. By the midpoint of Green Room, I felt queasy. A massacre bears down on the characters, and the horror is unbearable. For a moment, I wondered if this filmmaker had abandoned the essential humanism of his previous film and embraced an Eli Roth-style sadist nihilism. Yet he manages, always, to project the tiny flicker of hope that someone might make it out alive. It’s a tightrope walk: it also fantastically entertaining. My audience shrieked, hooted and laughed uproariously.
Yet Green Room is by no means a perfect film. Indeed, its strengths often undermine some of its less solid intentions.
For one thing, Saulnier – or perhaps the marketing team for this picture – is pitching the film as a punk experience, right down to modeling the poster on the album art of London Calling. Yet Green Room isn’t really a punk film. The Ain’t Rights are presented early on as poseurs (whose self-important dismissal of social media is a large factor in their undoing). The true filth and fury in this story exists in the backwoods venue. But this working-class rage is about race supremacy, not expression. When a particularly loathsome character compliments the Ain’t Rights’ music as “fucking hard,” he’s speaking of it as a soundtrack for violence. This is subversive stuff; I don’t think it’s served by a studio marketing it as a latter-day Repo Man.
I’m also surprised that the marketing for Green Room is so fixated on Stewart’s performance. One trailer would have you think that we’re in store for a villainous turn on par with Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men or Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. Stewart is menacing, though his English accent seems totally out-of-place in this Deliverance on the Pacific. Indeed, the actor’s innate gravitas makes his character’s hateful ideology eerily palatable. Still, he’s overshadowed by the far more palpable terror Saulnier creates with photography, sound and an ensemble of committed extras. The Ain't Rights arrive at the club and are met with throbbing feedback and many tattooed glowers. They open their set with a snarky Dead Kennedys cover, and the entire room begins pulsing towards them. Thoroughly shaken with this collective malevolence, I was less impressed by Stewart. His studied dissembling is far less compelling than the unchecked rage of his acolytes.
Two actors that bring the menace are Eric Edelstein and Macon Blair. Edelstein plays Big Justin, a sullen galoot who may be more frightened than the band he’s barricaded in the green room with. Justin is a vulnerable monster, trapped and dangerous and more than a little bit funny (his response to a warning from a band member drew a peel of cathartic laughter from my audience).
Blair, the star of Blue Ruin, gives the most emotionally resonant performance in Green Room. As Gabe, the new manager of the club, he meets every awful twist in the story with wide eyes and tremulous voice. Gabe is complicit in the carnage but does not have his red laces (a signifier that he has personally spilled blood for the cause). He needs Stewart’s approval but fears he cannot measure up. Gabe’s desire to prove his worth, though, makes him unpredictable and fearsome. The way he shakily informs the band that “we’re not keeping you: you’re just staying” is spine-chilling.
The wavering, uncontrollable threat that Edelstein and Blair represent feels like the white nationalist movement. Stewart, in contrast, feels like a villain written for a thriller.
My last nagging concern involves two revelations in the second half of the film: one in the club basement and one in a car’s trunk. That neither of these becomes a bargaining chip for our heroes might be narratively brave. As with Blue Ruin, much of the tension in this film derives from the fact that our protagonists aren’t thinking clearly. Sometimes this is infuriating, sometimes hilarious, always exhausting. Rarely have I felt such fear for characters, and I was nearly enraged that they frittered away the meagre leverage they had.
In the end, Green Room is not a chess game though. Or perhaps it’s a chess game played badly, in the midst of a monster truck rally. It’s thrilling, and pretty rough.