Blue Ruin, embraced a popular genre (the revenge picture) while simultaneously upending that genre's conventions, but it was most noticeable for its atmosphere, a queasy aura of sweat, grime, and helpless panic. Now he brings us Green Room, a terror film about a handful of people locked in a tiny space, desperate to escape. Its setup is familiar, but its execution is marvelously visceral. The result is both exhilarating and oddly strangulating—you cannot help but enjoy this movie's assaultive body blows, even as its hands begin to tighten around your neck.
Pat is the bassist for the Ain't Rights, a punk-rock four-piece also
featuring lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia
Shawkat, miles from her iconic role on Arrested Development), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole, from the BBC's Peaky Blinders).
They're touring the Pacific Northwest, though "touring" is a generous
term for their ritual, which consists of scrounging for gigs at sparsely
populated clubs and siphoning gas from parked cars to keep their
rundown van moving. After plowing through a particularly humiliating
performance that nets them six bucks apiece, they get wind of another
opportunity outside nearby Portland, which they accept eagerly. When
they arrive at the venue—a backwoods bar just east of nowhere—they
discover that they've been mislabeled "The Aren't Rights" and, more
disconcertingly, that the place is populated by skinheads and is adorned
with Nazi paraphernalia. Being iconoclasts, they settle on a special
number for the opening song of their set: a cover of Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!".
That's a dubious decision, but it isn't what gets them into trouble. In
fact, once the band moves on to its original material, the crowd
actually warms to their hard-edged sound, and Saulnier even indulges in a
rare flourish, capturing Pat rocking out in slow motion, sweat
streaming off his brow, lost in the ecstasy of making art. In a sense,
it's an unspoken commentary on the unifying power of music and how it
can bridge philosophical divides. But then, some distances are a bridge
too far, as the Ain't Rights discover when Pat, retrieving Sam's
forgotten cell phone, wanders back into the titular room and sees the
lifeless body of a young woman sprawled on the floor, a knife jammed
into the side of her head. Several seconds, screams, and expletives
later, the Ain't Rights find themselves locked inside the green room, a
hulking neo-Nazi bouncer looming over them with a pistol and a scowl. As
the Aryans might say: scheisse.
You're Next—but Saulnier, like his punk-rockers, wants to keep it real. And while Green Room chronicles events that are downright appalling, the most disturbing thing about it is that it seems so plausible.
If this movie is, above all, an exercise in ruthless efficiency, then
its standard-bearer is surely Darcy, the bar's owner and the neo-Nazis'
remorseless commandant. Darcy is played, in a masterstroke of casting,
by Patrick Stewart, an actor whose patrician accent and classical bona
fides automatically lend him an authoritative elegance. Stewart plays
deliciously against type here, retaining his usual superiority but
distorting it in terrifying ways. After being apprised of the situation,
Darcy makes a split-second decision—the Ain't Rights have to die—then
begins calculating just how that eventuality should come to pass. Darcy
is hopelessly amoral, but he's also considerably smarter than everybody
else on screen, and Stewart communicates his vast intelligence with
Admittedly, the movie fares better inside the green room than out. Saulnier favors economy over clarity, which helps Green Room's
pacing but also muddles its narrative. The neo-Nazis are scary dudes,
but there are a few too many of them (including one played by Macon
Blair, the lead in Blue Ruin), and it can be difficult for the audience to
grasp Darcy's brusque orders. And while Saulnier ingeniously devises an
excuse to prevent the movie from turning into a banal firefight, his
communication of that concept could have been clearer.
There's a runner in Green Room about the different musicians'
"desert island band"; while they initially feel compelled to name
punk-rock legends, one of them eventually blurts out, "Simon and
Garfunkel!" That's a blackly comic moment, but it's also in keeping with
the movie's spirit of honesty, and its inclusion makes this sharp,
vicious thriller no less raw. Pat may be worried about his art losing
texture, but Green Room proves that Saulnier—unlike his characters, and his audience—has nothing to fear.