There’s a moment early on in Green Room where I realized I’d rather puke in my own hands than look away from the screen. A fairly extreme reaction, yes, and one surprisingly not triggered by the on screen gore, which would only be a taste of what was to come. But rather it was the result of this unsettling feeling that had set up camp in the pit of my stomach only ten minutes prior. A feeling of impending claustrophobia, slowly collapsing, and squeezing the air out of me. The kind you get when you know a definitive line has been crossed. There is no backpedaling, no frantic apologies to clear the air and the white flag of desperation is already being used to mop up the first blood. It’s a gut punch of a reality, one that Green Room revels in, standing steadfast as a cliff-side while the tension breaks on the wall below. I was hooked and nauseous, knowing fully well that this lull was about to evaporate. And I couldn’t fucking look away, stomach tremors be damned.
Director Jeremy Saulnier returns with a follow up to 2013’s Blue Ruin, an atmospheric revenge thriller that has rightfully earned its “must see” status on the grounds of being a deviously crafty film, with a gorgeous look, and shot entirely by Saulnier none the less. While Blue Ruin told the story of one man’s life plan coming to bloody fruition, this film is almost a polar opposite.
Green Room follows a small-time punk band, the Ain’t Rights, couch surfing their way cross-country as they pick up gigs along the road. Their sound is equally elusive, not appearing in any digital or floppy formats. When pressed about this, Pat (Anton Yelchin), the group’s bassist, responds saying that music is about the moment. It’s an experience shared between the band, and then extended toward the audience. It’s a raw and primal form of storytelling. This group, with great performances by Alia Shawcat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner, is bound by their craft and the close-knit struggle of touring is what makes their music all the more potent.
Unfortunately a sudden cancelation leaves them short changed and in need of a quick show. A last minute opportunity opens up and the band finds themselves playing at a venue largely populated by a group of white supremacists. The Ain’t Rights open with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, and despite this vocal flipping of the bird, the crowd vibes with the band, unifying as one while they play their set. What follows next is a good ol’ kick to the senses, a declaration of sides and a barring of teeth. An unexpected murder strands the band in the titular green room, as this group of neo-nazis figure out how to make them and the evidence disappear. The Ain’t Rights indeed.
Like Pat’s speech about the sacred quality of being in the moment, Saulnier seems to exhibit a similar mantra for his films. They’re built on intimate, ordinary details. Whether it’s the cramped interior of a buddy’s van or a piece of skin, torn open and weeping. They all belong to a familiar, almost subconscious place. A place of comfort, now exploited out of cyclical conflict. In short, Saulnier brings the battle close to home.
It acts as an essential piece of this style of genre filmmaking. But where Saulnier really excels is the level of minimalism in which he delivers these details. We know virtually nothing about the Ain’t Rights, despite their charming road life, but in an early scene they bond over their desert island music picks and we instantly understand who these kids are. There’s no showmanship involved, they just want to have a feeling of ownership over their influences, like so many artists before them- and Saulnier by proxy.
Thankfully, rather than being beholden to its 70’s siege predecessors, Green Room rises above influence, building confidently upon Saulnier’s previous work. There’s the same level of ease as in Blue Ruin, with an expanded technical prowess that comes from handing off cinematography duties to Sean Porter (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter). Green Room offers a terrific and often terrifying sense of space, playing almost like a slasher flick. The result is a film that feels far more effortless in its skin than the recent years of gross-out franchises. And even though the violence that follows is telegraphed as soon as the punks tread the hateful ground, Saulnier masterfully toys with expectation until the weight of the tension squashes the thin truce beneath it.
And man, things get ugly. Green Room is a king’s ransom of practical gore effects and brilliantly hidden digital touch-ups. The violence is employed as both a means of survival and as a proving ground, with young skinheads stepping up to the plate to earn their “red laces”- a rite of passage within the organization. Whereas the Ain’t Rights are fighting for their lives, their weapons are far less malicious, coming in the form of scavenged objects from their makeshift base. Kills come quick, some are out of sight and others are held on as the once spry bodies are reduced to chew toys and pin cushions. It hurts, as it should, proving that Saulnier is here to rattle genre walls instead of sitting comfortably between them.
There’s no way you can leave Green Room and not view Saulnier as one of the most exciting directors currently working. At the preview screening I attended Saulnier admitted that he would love to do “big movies” and that he loved “studio movies…from the 70’s and 80’s”. So perhaps he’ll follow Jeff Nichols’ trajectory and eventually help usher us into a blockbuster renaissance- much like he’s proven that genre work can exist beyond imitation. But right now who can complain- it’s a time for celebration.
See Green Room, you won’t regret it.