Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier.
Written by: Jeremy Saulnier.
Starring: Anton Yelchin (Pat), Patrick Stewart (Darcy), Joe Cole (Reece), Alia Shawkat (Sam), Callum Turner (Tiger), Imogen Poots (Amber), David W. Thompson (Tad), Mark Webber (Daniel), Macon Blair (Gabe), Eric Edelstein (Big Justin), Brent Werzner (Werm), Taylor Tunes (Emily), Kai Lennox (Clark), Samuel Summer (Jonathan), Mason Knight (Kyle), Colton Ruscheinsky (Alan).
Blue Ruin announced Jeremy Saulnier as a major new talent in American genre filmmaking – and his follow-up Green Room confirms it. Both films are among the bloodiest you will see, and yet neither film really dwells on the blood that is spilled. The violence, when it comes, is usually over fairly quickly – but leaves that mess behind for the characters to deal with. Although everyone in the films have a plan – nothing really goes exactly how they think it will. Things go wrong, mistakes are made, there are unintended and unforeseen consequences that the characters do not see coming. Both films also play with their genre, subtly twisting things without jabbing you in the chest, and pointing out how clever the movie is. Blue Ruin is a film that has grown in my mind since I saw it at TIFF in 2013 – and something similar is happening with Green Room in the days since I saw it. Both films work – amazingly well – as genre film exercises – but both films have more going on than it appears like on the surface.
In short, Green Room is about a punk band named The Ain’t Rights, on a small, cross country tour from their home in Washington D.C. – now all the way in Portland, Oregon. They’re on their last stop, and yet, they still have no money (they have everything they need to siphon gas to get from gig-to-gig). We’re introduced to them as they are being interviews for a small radio piece – about why they value the live experience over albums, and why they have no social media presence. In these early scenes, it’s hard what to make of the band – are they a group of pretentious, untalented, punks and criminals – or do you admire them for the purity of their vision (or, perhaps, both). The band needs money, and after a gig is cancelled, they end up at another one instead. They are warned that the crowd will be “right wing, well, actually ultra-left wing, but that’s the same thing” (aka, they’re being playing for racist skinheads) – but hey, a gig is a gig, and money is money. After deliberately antagonizing the crowd in their first song, and then, presumably, winning them back after they are ready to hit the road – when they end up walking in on something they should never have seen. Now, they’ve locked themselves in the backroom of this makeshift club, in the middle of nowhere, with a dead body, a huge skinhead, and a friend of the victim. Outside, the skinheads – led by Patrick Stewart’s Darcy, who owns the place, try and talk them out – which they are reluctant to do sensing, rightly, that if they leave they’ll be killed.
Green Room works wonderfully well as a surface level thriller – as Saulnier gradually ratchets up the tension from one scene to the next. The characters are stuck in an impossible situation – and yet the decisions they make actually make sense at the time they make them – even if the results of those decisions is often disastrous. The film plays with the audience brilliantly – setting up various moments that we think we know how they will pay off, and then not going the expected root. He did this in Blue Ruin as well (the best example being when Macon Blair’s character tries to perform a little surgery on himself – which goes really wrong). Here, he sets up some “hero” moments that never actually come to pass. Saulnier’s approach to violence is fascinating as well. This is as bloody a film as you will see this year – yet Saulnier spends more time on the aftermath of the violence rather than the violence itself. The violence comes fast and furious in the film, and then is over rather quickly. But Saulnier doesn’t let the audience off the hook – he makes you sit with the blood, the viscera and the bodies for quite some time afterwards. Green Room even has an undercurrent of very dark comedy – including a last line that will go as one of the best of the year.
But Green Room is deeper than its genre trappings initially seem to indicate. The movie taps into the rage that leads to so much violence in America. Yes, the bad guys in the movie are racist skinheads – yet they are not over-the-top with their hatred, and Saulnier and his actors certainly paint different levels of their commitment. Patrick Stewart has perhaps never been better than he is as Darcy – a man who runs the organization, but is more of a businessman than anything else. He’s tired, and just wants the mess cleaned up, so it doesn’t jeopardize his earning potential. Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair has a great role as a man who is tough to get a read on – how much he believes. Imogen Poots is excellent as well –someone who starts on one side – she is at the skinhead show willingly, but ends up aligned with the band out of necessity. Even the various members of the band show different levels of commitment to their own, perhaps outdated ideology. This isn’t a movie about character development – out of necessity, a movie set over the course of one night, in one location in an intense situation, doesn’t have room for that. But that doesn’t mean the characters are one dimensional – at all.
Green Room is one of the best films of the year so far – a brilliant genre exercise, with additional layers which make it fascinating to think over – and one assumes, revisit. Don’t miss this one.