Ah, the thrill of a punk concert: the passion, the blaring music, the stinging feedback, the murderous, machete-wielding skinheads–wait, what? Green Room heads for theaters soon and this adrenaline-fueled horror-thriller from Jeremy Saulnier (director of indie hit Blue Ruin) is a wonderful testament to the power of a talented filmmaker who is willing to cross over into the extreme.
The film centers around a hardcore punk band named Ain’t Rights and stars Anton Yelchin as Pat, a quiet and reflective bassist. They’re winding down on what appears to have been a rather unsuccessful tour (they need to steal gasoline just to drive from show to show) and their last gig tragically falls through. At the last second, they’re given an opportunity to play a decent gig in Oregon. Unfortunately for them, their audience is mainly comprised of neo-nazis and the venue is owned by the ruthless Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), the leader of a local sect. But hey, keep your head down, jam out, get the mula, and get on the road, right? This all changes when a band member accidentally walks in on a murder committed by one of Banker’s henchmen. The whole band is locked in the titular green room as Banker tries to sort the situation out. It quickly becomes clear that Banker has no intentions of letting them go and it’s either fight or die. They end up doing a lot of both.
This film is, on a technical level, incredibly solid. It’s written like clockwork, the performances are all on point, and the dark, creeping camerawork gives the cluttered music-venue-turned-warzone a lot of character. All of this only became apparent to me on my second viewing, though, because when the credits rolled the first time around my heart was pounding way too fast to even try to identify exactly what made the movie tick. The film’s pacing is similar to horror films like Alien (Act 1: meet the characters; Acts 2 and 3: AAAHHHHHHHH!!!) and the brutal group vs. group survival elements harkened back to Deliverance. What’s so special about Green Room, though, is that the enemy isn’t psycho hillbillies or dangerous aliens, rather they’re just people. Cold, calculating people with backwards ideologies, but people nonetheless, and their characters are written as such. Darcy Banker is one mean dude, but he isn’t crazy and his choice to eradicate the Ain’t Rights seems more like a harsh business move than anything else. And the Ain’t Rights are just people, too. These aren’t any Burt Reynolds-esque badasses who have been training all their lives for a fight like this one. The result is that everyone feels out of their element and the violence seems to stem from grim necessity. At first, you want to see some baddies get what’s coming, but as soon as the violence starts you end up wishing it would stop, much like the characters. Nobody wins when box-cutters come out, am I right?
I really can’t praise the writing enough. In a lot of horror movies, you can tell who’s going to die just from how much screen-time they’re getting. Many a slasher film I have seen where some blonde will be standing on the sidelines the whole time, getting no chance to speak and no hint at a back-story, and when she gets killed it’s no surprise to anybody. Green Room gives short and sweet, but evenly distributed character developing moments to each of the Ain’t Rights as well as Darcy and some of his main henchmen. Character deaths come fast and furious. A strong, well-fleshed out character will abruptly meet their end while the rest of the band needs to keep moving. There’s almost no time to reflect on the losses because of the immediacy of the film. Decisions are made quickly, brashly, and have a landslide of repercussions. The characters aren’t given any easy outs. Every option demands conflict and inaction will inevitably lead to death. The scenes hinting at why the initial murder occurred and the past of Darcy and the rest of his sect give the movie-world convincing depth without lingering long enough to pull the audience out of their panicked state. The actors all do a great job at bringing the script to life. Yelchin probably gets the most screen time and plays Pat in a very quiet, non-masculine way that is atypical in horror. He makes you want to pat him on the back and say, “It’s gonna be alright, Anton, it’s just a movie.” Imogen Poots does a great job as Amber, a friend of the murder victim who ends up fighting alongside the Ain’t Rights as she flip-flops between hushed hysteria and totally numbed decision-making. And Patrick Stewart’s performance as Darcy reminds me of Bryan Cranston as Walter White. He barely ever even raises his voice as he pulls the strings from the sideline, adding a quiet menace to the entire film.
I love me a good exploitation film, but most of the horror movies from the past couple of decades that can be properly labeled as such usually end up feeling cheap, contrived, or uninspired. Most are either remakes, or reworkings of elements from 70s exploitation films and they fall back constantly onto that aesthetic and usually end up directly referencing their predecessors (how many Texas Chain Saw or Psycho nods have you seen in modern horror?). What made 70s exploitation so great was the immediacy of it all–it was an impulsive, uncensored medium that could shake its audience members to the bone. The best exploitation films weren’t made to fit into a genre or past body of work, they were content to stand alone. Even if that meant making some of the cast and crew look like sadistic weirdos. That’s the kind of energy that Green Room plays into. It never gets excessively stylistic or tries to hint at a shoehorned ideological subtext; it simply puts its audience into a situation they’re desperate to get out of and doesn’t let them take comfort in contrived plot turns or filmic norms. When it ends, though, you’ll probably find yourself missing that energy and wanting to go back for seconds.
Written by David Goodliffe