Jeremy Saulnier is not your everyday filmmaker. Debuting with a fun horror comedy back in 2007 called “Murder Party”, Saulnier didn’t exactly set the world on fire until 2013 when he release the deeply powerful and artfully made revenge thriller/morality play “Blue Ruin”. Following in the footsteps of that film’s critical response as well as the surprise sleeper status it picked up on streaming sites like Netflix, Saulnier decided to go to a straight-up genre entry that follows a very independent punk band who performs at a rural Oregon bar and ends up in the midst of a brutal and deadly confrontation with neo-Nazis where the band spends a good portion of the film trapped in the titular location of the “Green Room”.
The almost completely unknown band Ain’t Rights with lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) find themselves in the hole after being promised a halfway decent gig in the Portland area, only to find they make a little more than $6 a piece after playing, get a makeup gig in a more rural area where they stand to make more than just gas money. They’re warned beforehand that the audience can have skinheads in it, but are told they’re not very violent. With the promise of more money, they arrive to the roadhouse bar and play their set. Just as they’re gathering their gear and on their way out, Pat goes back into the bar’s green room for a forgotten cell phone and stumbles into a murder of a young woman that’s just been committed by the next band and another young woman, Amber (Imogen Poots) who may also be in potential danger. Pat tries to call 911 for help, but is intercepted by one of the bouncers, Gabe (Macon Blair, star of “Blue Ruin”) who tries to de-escalate the situation. Gabe soon gets Darcy (Patrick Stewart… yes, PATRICK STEWART), the owner of the club and leader of the local skinheads, involved as far as containment is concerned. While the band is contained, Darcy looks to dispose of the band members to make the incident seem like either an accident or a murder committed by the band. Both sides of the confrontation are desperate, and in their desperation, they both make deadly mistakes that will lead to a climactic confrontation where only one side will survive.
I have to take a few moments to talk about Anton Yelchin. While he may have not been in a lot of superb films, he has always been 100% committed to his performances. In films like the “Star Trek” films, “Charlie Bartlett”, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, and this, his work tends to stand out even in a field of other more acclaimed performers. He had a supremely bright future ahead of him and he left us far too soon.
While “Green Room” isn’t as morally grey as “Blue Ruin” was in its depiction of how violence begets violence, it’s more immediate and visceral, playing out in almost real time once the suspense of the film begins. Saulnier also uses similar techniques as he did in “Blue Ruin” in regards to the color palette. The opening moments of the film includes a shot of the band’s van driven off the road into a picturesque green cornfield. It’s an instantaneous image of intrusion that foreshadows how this band will find itself in a situation that finds them as the outsiders. There are several other green landscapes as the film picks up images of the lush Oregonian forests. Even Tiger has green hair. It’s a technique that worked to better effect in “Blue Ruin” but is not unwelcome here.
Saulnier’s writing and direction are also tight and economical, conveying an almost consistent dread once the action gets going. The band actually begins their set at this venue with a Dead Kennedys cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, which… probably not the best call, but it speaks to the heart of the band’s punk sensibilities. The violence, in most cases, is immediate and brutal, with attack dogs ripping out throats and shotgun blasts to faces. Occasionally Saulnier shows restraint, which in some cases is actually worse, because it forces you to imagine everything horrifying that’s happening. But when the violence is on-screen, it’s as visceral as anything you’d see in more run-of-the-mill horror films.
As far as the performances are concerned, everyone is extremely well-suited to their roles and their realism. Of course Sir Patrick steals all of his scenes where he is clearly having a good time playing a being of pure menace and malice. Macon Blair makes another case for being an extremely underrated performer with his portrayal of the increasingly squeamish Gabe. But controlling much of the film are Yelchin and Poots, reteaming here from when they appeared together in 2011’s remake of “Fright Night”. Yelchin gives Pat a vulnerability, intelligence, and civility until he’s pushed too far, and Poots is a woman already pushed too far and is much more gung-ho and more take-charge in her role and she really shines. Also a standout here is Shawkat as Sam, who brings a surprising wealth of experience to her role here.
While “Green Room” might seem like a thriller from its description, Saulnier definitely goes for a horror vibe throughout the film. Comparisons to “Blue Ruin” are inevitable, but “Green Room” is a much different animal and is one of the more suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding independent American horror/thrillers that has appeared on screen in the last year.