A memo to all two-bit punk bands who rely on siphoned gas, beer-money gigs, and a network of floors to crash on while touring: make sure that you don’t accept a last-minute gig at a racist skinhead clubhouse no matter how desperate you are. There’s a chance that you may accidentally witness a murder, and then your night will really go off the rails. There are, of course, many other takeaways from Jeremy Saulnier’s near-perfect nugget of a siege thriller, especially if you’re a filmmaker who traffics in such gnarly pleasures: be sure you have a group of relentless psychopaths on hand. Add plenty of shotguns, machetes, box cutters, and killer dogs into the mix. And once you’ve tightened the screws on your audience, be sure to twist them a few more times for maximum nerve-shredding.
Having gone from DIY horrormeister and micro-budget Jack-of-all-trades to Cannes-premiering director, Saulnier understands how to do more with less and transform genre exercises into cinematic food for thought. Not for nothing did his breakthrough film Blue Ruin (13) turn a revenge thriller into something violent enough for the Fantastic Fest crowd yet critical enough of its bloodlust to attract Directors’ Fortnight attention. There’s no such distancing duality in his follow-up, however. This grungy story of punks versus skins bypasses any sense of commentary on ’80s exploitation staples and simply sets up shop in the grindhouse’s last theater on the left. It would feel like a step backward for most artists who’d distinguished themselves from the usual schlock-and-awe pack, except that Saulnier’s skill set has sharpened exponentially. He’s not out to deconstruct the B-movie, but to build a leaner, meaner, better one.
From the moment our heroes, a hardcore punk band called The Ain’t Rights, pass the gate into the Portland, Oregon, compound that’s strictly “boots and braces,” Green Room lets you know that these kids are way out of their depth and that the audience is in very good hands. Everyone in the band—Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), Tiger (Callum Turner), and Reece (Joe Cole), a drummer who just happens to have a black belt in jujitsu—picks up on the aggro vibe from the get-go. After the gig, Pat’s the unlucky soul who stumbles upon a woman with a screwdriver sticking out of her head. The rest of The Ain’t Rights and the victim’s friend, a sprite with a Chelsea haircut and dead eyes (Imogen Poots), are quickly herded back into the titular small space and told to wait for the cops. Instead, a white supremacist godhead named Darcy, played by Patrick Stewart in malevolent villain mode, arrives with a permanent clean-up plan. One broken arm, one box-cutter disembowelment, and one makeshift barricade later, a good old-fashioned standoff is underway.
This is the point where Saulnier proves himself to be a master of controlled chaos, knowing when to show restraint, when to drop in moments of humor (Darcy reminds the concert crowd that “the racial advocacy workshop is on Wednesday, unless you hear otherwise”), and when to cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war—literally, in the case of the movie’s throat-chomping pit bulls. Graphic scenes of carnage are doled out sparingly but unflinchingly, while cinematographer Sean Porter gives each high-stakes encounter in the club’s dark hallways and blood-slicked floors a palpable sense of vintage nastiness. Yet the brutality here doesn’t feel like a retro-hip pose. There are no tongues in cheeks, unless you count the one you see when a character takes a face-cleaving blow. Like those close-shaven soldiers trying to flush out interlopers, Green Room is a movie that means business. And like the kids fighting for their survival, it’s not afraid to get genuinely down and dirty in order to get the job done.
David Fearis a contributor to FILM COMMENT and Rolling Stone.