Alibi V.25 No.17 • April 28-May 4, 2016 

Film Review

Green Room

Punk-fueled indie shocker goes for the throat

Green Room
“OK, let me rephrase that ...”

Green Room (2016)

Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart

There was a time when Hollywood was all about the indie filmmakers. The ’90s box office was dominated by people like Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, filmmakers operating just outside of the Hollywood system to make intriguing, rule-breaking low-budget films. That’s changed quite a bit since the year 2000 rolled around. Mainstream studios are all about the $200 million dollar blockbuster genre franchises now. Those films tend to eat up screen space, leaving very little room for smaller films to catch fire. If you look hard enough, you can find a few people still paving their own path through the movie industry. But with video stores a distant memory and superhero movies crowding the cineplexes, it’s hard out there for an innovative voice.

Which brings us to a guy by the name of Jeremy Saulnier. In just three little films, the writer-director has made a convincing argument that he’s one of those old-fashioned, up-and-coming auteurs who deserves some serious attention. His first film was 2007’s clever, no-budget horror-comedy Murder Party, in which a clueless dork ended up invited to a hipster Halloween party, whose organizers intended to murder a clueless dork for the sake of “art.” Saulnier’s second was 2013’s melancholy crime drama Blue Ruin, which concentrated on the slow-creeping story of a homeless shell of a fellow aiming for ice cold revenge on the man who killed his parents. The filmmaker’s third film—and third tonal about-face —is the hardcore survival-horror hybrid Green Room.

The film quietly and unhurriedly starts by introducing us to the members of the Ain’t Rights, a Washington, D.C.-area punk band just trying to scratch out a living. Among the members is introverted lead singer Pat (Anton Yelchin from Star Trek), mouthy guitarist Sam (the increasingly cool Alia Shawkat from “Arrested Development”) and buff drummer Reece (Joe Cole from Secret in Their Eyes). The band is tripping its way across the Pacific Northwest on syphoned gas in search of a promised gig in Portland. But a bad turn of luck finds the venue shut down and the promised door revenues vanished. Embarrassed by the sequence of events, the concert’s young promoter offers to find the band a substitute gig with his cousin. Turns out it’s a “boots and braces” concert out in the sticks—which translates to hardcore, white supremacist punks. The band usually sees one or two skinheads at every show, so they figure they can handle it.

This turns out to be the first in a long line of poor decisions. While wrapping up their mid-afternoon set—which goes better than expected, considering they opened with the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”—the band stumbles across a backstage scene they really should not have witnessed. The isolated club’s oily manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin and Murder Party) locks the now panic-stricken band in the green room with a hulking bouncer (Eric Edelstein, best known for his voice work on “We Bare Bears” and “Clarence”) and goes looking for the club’s mysterious owner. Strolling onto the scene and thoroughly dominating it now is Darcy Banker (Sir Patrick Stewart), a levelheaded, frighteningly calm senior skinhead who serves as the financier/landlord/godfather to this tribe of redneck neo-Nazis.

What follows is a skin-prickling, life-or-death negotiation in which the band members do their utmost to escape from the back room of the club, while their captors do their best to figure out how to murder these outsiders without leaving any evidence. It’s like a Friday the 13th movie on pause. You know people are going to die real soon, and you’re just waiting for the bloodshed to explode. Rest assured, it will. But not before you’ve sufficiently chewed your fingernails down to the quick.

Saulnier has proved himself a journeyman of mood, and he spends plenty of time here establishing our characters and the tough, tense situation in which they find themselves. From the moment our protagonists set foot in that graffiti-covered clapboard club out in the middle of nowhere, Oregon, we know things are gonna go from bad to worse to oh, my freakin’ god apocalyptic. Fortunately, Saulnier and his solid cast have put in the work to make us care about these people and to believe in the utter, desperate reality of their situation before hitting us with the cavalcade of gore.

While hardly sympathetic, it’s just as easy to understand the motivation of Mr. Darcy and his shaved-head minions. I mean, if you’re gonna run a racist, pitbull-and-meth-filled drug-smuggling empire, you can’t leave a lot of witnesses behind, now can ya? Stewart, it should be noted, is simply awesome playing against type as the businesslike murderer. Natural dialogue, an unhurried pace and a smartly constructed narrative make what could have been a throwaway genre thriller something far more deserving of cult status.

Once again Mr. Saulnier has taken a minimalist narrative and explored every inch of it with skill and a fresh perspective. Green Room is full to the brim with the sort of unexpected shocks and indelible images midnight movie-going crowds clamor for. Here’s hoping the filmmaker has a few more of these in him before some major Hollywood studio snatches him up and forces him at gunpoint to direct a Twilight prequel or something equally soul-destroying.