Green Room Is One Gnarly, Nerve-Wracking RidePosted: April 25, 2016
So far this year, my favorite movies have been films driven by uplift and hope and sheer entertainment, spread over a range of tones and styles. But even now, when I could use as much entertaining inspiration as possible, it can just as (if not more) cathartic to watch something unabashedly mean and ugly and grisly. For me, that film is Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, a rip-roaring motherfucker of a film that punches you in the face and expects a “thank you” for it. I highly recommend it.
The film follows scrappy punk band The Ain’t Rights (including Anton Yelchin & Alia Shawkat) as their amateur, hand-to-mouth tour takes them to a skinhead bar in Oregon, where they stumble into a murder and a standoff with neo-Nazis led by Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart). What follows is a gory, gross and grim throw-down between the punks and skinheads that leaves no blood unspilled and a ton of intoxicating atmosphere to savor.
Just as a piece of tension-driven filmmaking, Green Room excels. From the second the band arrives at the bar there is a sense of danger and discomfort that only escalates from there. What Saulnier does so well though is that he never lets things fully explode the way you might expect. The discovery of the dead body and the beginning of the standoff happens so fast and with such uncertainty that it leaves both the characters and the audience unsure of what’s happening and what might happen next, which of course only increases the anxiety of the situation. And every burst of violence is so quick and almost matter-of-fact that it leaves a very disturbing taste in your mouth without ever overplaying itself.
But what really helps put white in your knuckles here is investment in characters, and Saulnier and his cast make you fall for these dime store rockers in a very effortless way. The way they’re introduced– having driven into a cornfield when their driver falls asleep at the wheel and then siphoning gas from cars in a nearby lot– is recklessly likable. I could imagine taking the early scenes of the band being a band and changing the background music to something upbeat and it would suddenly feel like a Linklater film. And chances are you’ve met people like these kids before: playing whatever shitty gigs they can book, waxing pretentious about live music and staying “legit” by not actually making it big. They’re familiar in a real way, and that makes their plight all the more distressing.
Then there are the Nazis, led by the aforementioned Darcy, and these dudes are classic “banality of evil” kinda guys. They aren’t stupid, that’s for sure: Darcy and his lieutenants are smart, careful, and efficient, to the point of making the band’s chances seem particularly hopeless. But there’s nothing particularly grandiose about this lot; they rarely even express the cartoonish bigotry one one expect from backwoods fascists. In the end they’re just a bunch of sad, angry rednecks clinging to the minor illusion of power Darcy has given them.
What Saulnier does so well (with the able help of the cast) is slowly strip away the outward veneers of ideology and personality on both sides until we just have two desperate groups of people trying to make it through the night. The Nazis aren’t megalomaniacal supervillains; they’re just a bunch of territorial thugs trying to protect their turf at the request of a bitter old man. And the Ain’t Rights aren’t aspiring musicians on the last legs of a forgettable tour; they’re a group of kids who can only worry about getting to tomorrow. The artistic hopes of the band and the philosophical perspective of the gang become irrelevant long before the last blood is spilled. It’s just kill or be killed, and live with the consequences another time.
Part of me feels like there’s depth here waiting to be unwrapped– there might be some commentary about visible aggression being a pose adopted by the frightened and defensive– but unlike other cult films that have felt thematically evasive Green Room never feels like an incomplete experience as a result. It’s a confident, uncompromising piece of breathless filmmaking, one that dares you to stomach the tension it offers… and rewards you wholeheartedly for doing so.