There are some films I’m predisposed to like. I have a soft spot for claustrophobic thrillers and black comedies, for example, and if a film features a smart DC reference or a favorite song, I identify with the story more quickly. On those terms, anyway, Green Room scratches all the right itches. Its heroes are quick to point out they’re from the DC suburbs, not the city proper, and the film uses one of my all-time favorite songs as a significant plot point. But even with the predisposition, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier crafted an intense, brutal thriller that has smart, economical storytelling and a shrewd attention to detail.
The reluctant heroes are a DIY punk band who are touring the Pacific Northwest in a van. After they make peanuts from a show in a Mexican restaurant, an acquaintance suggests they play a nearby venue because the proprietors offer $350 in cash. They head to the new gig, and as they’re setting up, something is not right. White supremacists congregate around the space – the band are no racists – so they decide to play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to antagonize them. The real stand-off happens after the show: the guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat) accidentally stumbles onto a dead woman, so the band freaks out and barricades themselves in the venue’s green room. They quickly realize the Neo-Nazis do not want any witnesses, so the only alternative is a deadly battle of wills – or whatever makeshift weapons they can find.
The script sharply defines the characters, so they always act according to their natures, including when they surprise themselves. Pat (Anton Yelchin) is the bass player and ultimately serves as the leader; he’s resourceful, and best at speaking with authority. Once the band barricade themselves, Pat negotiates with Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the Neo-Nazi leader whose soft voice hides a heartless willingness to kill. The band does not know what Nazis are capable of – not yet, anyway – so Saulnier ratchets up the tension while paying close attention to the tight geography of the room. The action scenes are abrupt, violent, and grisly. While they devolve to chaos, Saulnier’s camera follows the characters with precision.
The siege film is almost as old as Hollywood. Howard Hawks defined the genre with 1959’s Rio Bravo, then John Carpenter put an exploitative spin on it with Assault on Precinct 13. Green Room follows in that tradition, except with one crucial difference: few of the characters are experienced killers, so the improvised violence leads to surprising, bloody consequences. Aside from the band-mates, another woman named Amber (Imogen Poots) is also in the green room, and she uses a boxcutter like someone who does not know what it does to human flesh.
This DIY approach to action and self-defense reflects the film’s attitude, which is grim and sometimes even funny. The Neo-Nazis are so dispassionate in their brutality that the band’s ability to crack a joke becomes a small, necessary form of punk rock rebellion. Saulnier’s willingness to kill his characters is jarring, and a welcome change of pace from thrillers that telegraph on-screen deaths. Unlike filmmakers who focus on the consequences of a conflict, Saulnier focuses on the process of a conflict. Even when the film ends with a surreal, bloody final stand-off, Saulnier’s visual storytelling is unique. If Hawks and Carpenter influence Green Room‘s premise, then the Coen Brothers influence his filmmaking.
The actors never strain for effect, so they develop their characters through smaller, lived-in moments. The good guys look like scrawny kids, not badasses, and the Green Room uses that vibe to its advantage. If they rise to the occasion, it’s because of punk rock: they cannot fail their band-mates. There is also a visceral quality to the acting that adds genuine plausibility: after a crucial stand-off, an injured character sobs with a mix of fear and pain that I’ve never heard in a film before, but sounds exactly right. While the bandmates have plucky resourcefulness, Stewart’s character is nasty, quiet, and smart. He plays against type, and the effect is downright chilling. Still, no performance stands out because the script denies them the opportunity. Everyone serves the story first.
Jeremy Saulnier is the antithesis of Oscar-winning filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, and I mean that as a compliment. While Iñárritu fills his otherwise pulpy films with haughty bullshit, Saulnier strips away all that portentous fat. Like Blue Ruin, Green Room is lean and entertaining, without a wasted shot or aspiration other than to entertain, thrill, and shock its audience. And since Green Room sticks to its premise without ponderous shots of the stars or whatever, Saulnier unearths deeper themes along the way. He has more to say about violence, vengeance, and friendship in 90 minutes than Iñárritu had to say in double that time (the soundtrack is better, too). To top it all off, there’s a kiss-off line that’s funny and weirdly profound. This is one of the year’s best films.