It took me two viewings of Green Room to fully appreciate it—not because the movie’s so complex, but because it’s so simple. The follow-up film from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, who last made the soulful revenge thriller Blue Ruin, doesn’t have the emotional resonance or moody tenor that highlighted his superb previous effort. But if Green Room isn’t as rich an experience, it’s as well-crafted and confident in its own way. And good lord is it tense.
The film takes place over one harrowing night in a seedy club in the middle of nowhere, Oregon. A struggling punk band known as the Ain’t Rights has landed an impromptu gig at this neo-Nazi dive bar, and while no one in the group is particularly thrilled with the clientele, hey, they need the dough. (It’s a sign of how cash-strapped they are that the band members take to siphoning gas from other vehicles to keep their grungy van going.)
We get only the smallest morsels of character detail about the band members, but it’s sufficient. Pat (Anton Yelchin) is the meek, mild bassist. Guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat) takes no guff, even though she’s the only woman in the group. Vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner) is a born antagonist. Reece (Joe Cole) is the drummer—and, well, who remembers a drummer? Because Green Room is a dyed-in-the-wool midnight movie, the band members’ scruffy familiarity is all the starting point we need before things start going horribly, enticingly wrong.
After the Ain’t Rights’ short, snotty set, they hurry to get the hell out of there, but Pat accidentally discovers a horrendous sight: A murder has just occurred in the green room, a knife jammed into the female victim’s head while her friend Amber (Imogen Poots) sits nearby in shock, fearful she’ll be killed next. Freaking out, the club employees (led by the accurately named Big Justin, played by an imposing Eric Edelstein) hold the band at gunpoint, alerting owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart, donning glasses and beard like a slightly older Walter White) to the trouble. Thus sets in motion a showdown between the Ain’t Rights and the skinheads—Darcy wants them eliminated so that there are no witnesses to the crime, and the band just wants to get out alive, swearing they won’t tell anyone of what they’ve witnessed.
Long before the Ain’t Rights make their way to this fateful Oregon gig, Green Room has already firmly established a tone of general unease. Saulnier creates a grim and funny atmosphere of urgent desperation through a handful of images and moments: the sight of the band’s touring van crashed in a farmer’s field; a chippy interview between the Ain’t Rights and a too-cool twentysomething journalist; the overall vibe of being a young, hungry musician yearning to be heard but increasingly cognizant of the fact that there’s no money in your calling. But once the band enters the neo-Nazi bar, Saulnier, working with cinematographer Sean Porter and production designer Ryan Warren Smith, makes a nice shift from existential dread to straight-up anxiety as Pat and his mates discover there are worse things than getting stiffed on your cut of the door.
More a battle of wills than a battle royale, Green Room tightens the vise as the Ain’t Rights subdue Big Justin and take his gun, putting into motion a thriller that prizes smarts over crude butchery. Saulnier keeps the plot simple: There’s no way out of the green room except for the door that’s being blocked by Darcy’s thugs, but the band members have Big Justin hostage, which might be their only leverage to negotiate a truce. Saulnier’s film has its roots in the blood-splattered drive-in pleasures of grindhouse, but he’s evolved significantly from his first feature, 2007’s clumsy Murder Party, which trafficked in mindless B-movie pulp without wit or distinction. If Blue Ruin was Saulnier’s stab at high art—combining brutal violence with a cautionary tale about a drifter seeking to kill the man who murdered his parents—Green Room is where he takes his knack for low-budget carnage and caters straight to the genre fans.
The first time I saw Green Room, that didn’t seem to be nearly enough. Watching the movie at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes last May, I was impressed by Saulnier’s skill and the raw urgency his cast brought to this gritty fight-or-flight faceoff, but the film nevertheless felt like a comedown after Blue Ruin’s more thoughtful exploration. Almost a year later, Green Room landed entirely differently for me. Its stripped-down precision, its grimy remorselessness, is the point—and it’s an apt one for characters who don’t have a moment to breathe, let alone ponder the deeper meanings of their gruesome altercation.
There’s a real beauty to the way Saulnier and editor Julia Bloch keep escalating the tension, the threat of mayhem always hovering over the claustrophobic setup. (And when violence does occur, it’s executed with such matter-of-fact bluntness that it makes the movie’s vise-like grip even more crushing.) The characters may not be particularly nuanced, but they’re not dummies, and consequently one of Green Room’s great pleasures is watching the combatants on both sides of this terse chess match try to outmaneuver one another.
Likewise, the performances are locked into the movie’s sinewy approach, no one in the cast indulging in any actor-ly flourish. Pat may come across as a bit of a wimp, but Yelchin keeps exposing the kid’s quiet strength, especially when he has to rally his bandmates to keep their cool and think their way out of that room. He becomes a leader, much to his and everyone else’s surprise. As for Stewart, Green Room finds him in a subdued mode, emanating slow-burn menace. This is not the performance of a beloved veteran chewing the scenery and hamming it up—instead, his Darcy has an impressively methodical approach to his evil, meticulously deducing how best to go about the systematic extermination of this meddlesome band.
There are deeper themes going on in Green Room if you want to contort yourself to find them. The sympathetic, albeit sardonic look at the punk-rock aesthetic feels close to the heart of an independent filmmaker who, before Blue Ruin, wasn’t even sure he could make a living as a director. And the juxtaposition of the Ain’t Rights’ harmless nihilism and the neo-Nazis’ true monstrousness is a dark joke about the divide between pretending to be a badass and actually being a legitimate cancer on society.
But even reaching for such meanings in Green Room is to sell short what Saulnier is after in his snarling, compact thriller, which uncoils in a third act full of viciousness and shocks that are grounded in realism but also compellingly executed. He’s that rare midnight-movie purveyor who knows he can make something more emotional and evocative when he decides to do so. But when he doesn’t, he’s hardly slumming. To use a punk-rock metaphor the Ain’t Rights might appreciate, if Blue Ruin was Saulnier’s London Calling—expansive, masterful, genre-bending—then Green Room is The Clash: brutal, uncompromising, a boot to the face. Either one works great, depending on your mood.