Jeremy Saulnier might not be a name you recognize, but it is one you should get to know. In 2014 he came out with Blue Ruin, a small, unadorned, low-budget film that was a powerful rumination on revenge and the consequences of seeking revenge. It ended up at #14 in my rankings for the best films of that year. Now, Saulnier is back with Green Room, a film that is as equally brutal and thrilling and lean as Blue Ruin was.
The Ain’t Rights is a punk band, comprised of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Tiger (Callum Turner), and Reece (Joe Cole). Originally from Arlington, VA, they’re traveling in their van between gigs out in the Northwest and low on funds. After an interview with a local DJ, they are faced with the choice of doing a gig at a punk bar outside of Portland, OR after their original gig fell through, or schlepping their way back across the country to Arlington, with barely enough money for one tank of gas and knowing they’d need to siphon gas the majority of the way. They end up taking the gig, finding out when they get there that it is a neo-Nazi skinhead bar out in a remote, wooded location. After playing their set and getting paid by the manager of the bar, Gabe (Macon Blair), they’re about to leave, but stumble upon a murder and soon find themselves locked up in the club’s green room, along with the murder victim’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots), with no phone and no means of escape and the club owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), devising a plan to eliminate them with his neo-Nazi goons.
The film is a tense horror thriller that puts these characters in an untenable and extreme situation. It plies its trade in the common tropes of its genre of people being trapped in a room or building or some kind of single location while outside forces try to break in or force them out. It’s all there. There is even the classic trope of the group, in this case the band, doing the one last job (in this case a gig) because they are desperate, and suffering the consequences of that decision.
What makes Green Room stand out, though, is Saulnier. Though we don’t know much about the members of this band, they feel like real people rather than just archetypes or one dimensional characters. While we may not know their backstories or everything about them, the bits we do get, and particularly in the way that they interact with one another, gives you the sense that they are fully fleshed out characters. And the same even goes for the neo-Nazi skinheads who have evil intentions for them. Really, they are unwillingly placed into their position as well, because of the actions of one person, and the panicked decision on Gabe and a series of unfortunate circumstances. The difference between the two sides is merely in the lengths they are now willing to go to resolve the situation.
Patrick Stewart is a strong, grounding presence in the film. I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding his performance here. It ended up being nothing like what I expected. He is cold, calculated, and cerebral. He keeps his head and is almost always measured while the people who work beneath him are prone to moments of rash action and hasty actions. He exerts his control over the whole standoff situation, even negotiating with Pat, the de facto leader of the band, and manipulating the people trapped inside into giving up a big leverage chip. There rest of the cast is also very strong, including a Saulnier favorite Macon Blair, who holds his own playing opposite Stewart in quite a few scenes.
The film is extremely violent, but, much like Blue Ruin, grounds the violence firmly in reality. Getting back to the film being populated by characters who feel like real people, the violence feels real because it is sudden and often sloppy and messy. Most people have little to no experience with taking a life and being put in a situation that may call for that is a difficult thing. At one point in the green room, Sam is handed a gun the band has managed to get, but quickly proclaims that she doesn’t want to be the one holding the gun.
This film is not populated with typical action heroes or the average hero/heroine of other similar thrillers, and because of that, the violence carries more heft and the deaths of characters carries more weight, and it’s all a testament to Saulnier. There are also some moments that are darkly comedic, like the band playing a Dead Kennedys cover designed to alienate their audience. There is a running callback to the interview the band gives with the DJ where he asked them all to name the one desert island artist. All of them give answers that they’re “supposed” to give, but when it comes up again in the green room, where pretension on posturing has been stripped away, they reveal their true answers (one even names Prince, which is surreal in its timeliness). It’s a real, vulnerable, genuine moment between friends that adds to the realness of their characters and just adds to the tragedy of what is awaiting them on the other side of the door.
As I walked out of the theater and got into my car after seeing Green Room, I sat for a moment and realized I felt exhausted. It took me a second to realize that it was because of the movie. I was so incredibly tense throughout almost its entire, lean 95 minutes that I had not just watched the film, but I had expended energy experiencing it. I can think of a few other times that has happened with a film, but it is rare. I hope Green Room finds a bigger audience as it has expended to a wider release. Regardless of its box office performance, I have no doubt that it will continue to raise that status of Jeremy Saulnier. He is a writer/director who is coming into his own and I’m excited for what he is going to produce next.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars