Jeremy Saulnier made quite a mark on the genre world a few years ago with his bitter little pill of a thriller Blue Ruin. The movie racked up record numbers in the Wild West of VOD distribution and probably could have landed the writer/director a cushy Hollywood gig if he’d wanted to go that way. Thankfully, that’s not how things turned out. Instead, Saulnier went back to the low budget arena for a Punks vs. Nazis siege thriller that is sure to be one of the most intense genre flicks of the year. It packs a hefty gut punch of thrills and develops its characters and world well enough to hit audiences hard n’ deep in a way that should leave them wandering out of the theater feeling woozy. Saulnier’s goal is pure gritty n’ grimey entertainment and he delivers the goods to such a wild degree that the movie will likely earn cult status within a few short years.
The story follows a wayward punk band on the last legs of a failed tour (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin plays the sadsack bassist, Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat is the calm guitar player, Joe Cole is the requisite hot tempered drummer, and Callum Turner is the sarcastic singer). They’ve done so poorly that they are reduced to siphoning gas between gigs and their latest show was such a failure that they didn’t even make enough money for lunch. Desperate for cash to get home, they accept a gig at a skinhead Nazi rally. They show up filled with regret and kick off the performance with a song designed to alienate the crowd. But it seems like our plucky gang will get out easy until they stumble into the green room to retrieve their cell phone and discover that Imogen Poots’ mysterious punk’s friend has been murdered. The next thing you know, the Nazis have barricaded the punks in the green room and their creepily controlled leader (Patrick Stewart, just as awesome casting as it sounds) is determined to clean things up no matter how many extra bodies are piled onto the mess. Yep, this is going to get ugly.
Saulnier wastes little time setting up his sticky situation. We get just enough information about the troubled punks to care for them and then the rest of the movie is just the expert director slowly cranking up tension until things become unbearable. Blood is spilled and Saulnier is completely unafraid to get graphic. The movie boasts one of the gnarliest and nastiest prosthetic effects in recent years early on, which is sure to earn big gasps out of even the most hardened audience. After that, the onscreen violence is a bit more subdued, but only because Saulnier knows when it’s more disturbing not to see the blood and the threat of images going too far hang over every frame. Once things get going, Green Room is an intense ride that never lets up until the credits roll. The flick recalls the stripped-to-the-bone intensity and simplicity of early John Carpenter, with little bursts of the ironic humour and eccentric characterizations of The Coen Brothers. Yep, it’s that good.
It helps immeasurably that the cast is so uniformly good. In particular, Anton Yelchin does a great job portraying a dork pushed far beyond the edge and Imogen Poots is an unexpected hardass heroine who delivers most of the heroism. Saulnier’s regular character actor (and Blue Ruin star) Macon Blair lends some surprising empathy to a put upon clean up punk to keep the moral lines grey. Then of course there’s Patrick Stewart as a cold n’ calculated Nazi skinhead leader in some deeply unexpected casting that delivers in a big bad way. It might sound like miscasting, but works surprisingly well in practice once you realize that his character is so coldly calculated in his evil that it’s practically dignified (and as well all know, Stewart does dignified very well). The order in which the characters survive and die isn’t always predictable, so Saulnier and his actors take great pleasure in setting up and subverting audience expectations purely to mess with our heads. It’s a movie that keeps you on edge and constantly uneasy and that’s a great place for a dirty genre flick to take you.
Make no mistake, Green Room isn’t exactly a major film dealing with complex themes or with anything substantial to say about humanity. Nope, it’s a nasty little entertainment driven thriller with no real aspirations beyond making viewers palms sweat. Thankfully, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier nails that viewer impact just about as well as any movie in this style in recent years. The visuals are tightly controlled for maximum manipulation, while still leaving room for grubby handheld realism. The performances range from comedic to battered, embittered, feral animals when things get messy. It’s harsh, nasty, and exciting. Exactly the type of thing that genre fans crave when they buy a ticket and hope for blood. If you’ve gotten tired of Hollywood gloss and feel like getting dirty, it doesn’t get any better than Green Room. Enjoy it, you sick bastards.