WARNING: Spoilers for the movie 'Green Room' below. Proceed with whatever level of caution you punks see fit.
Jeremy Saulnier's punks vs. skins thriller Green Room is not for the faint at heart.
I’ve never been a punk, nor a punk rocker, nor really much of a punk rock fan, so maybe I’m not the audience for this movie. Maybe it was the unfortunate seat in the second row — so close to the screen, so close to the unflinching carnage. Maybe it was the sub-par cheeseburger and milkshake afforded to me by the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, Texas. Maybe it was none of those things. In any case, Green Room was an unpleasant experience saved by intriguing actors and some admittedly impeccable craftsmanship.
Starting out, Jeremy Saulnier’s film is a slice-of-life of the sort of hand-to-mouth existence small-time punk bands encounter on the road: getting drunk, getting lost, betting on sketchy venues to make a measly three hundred bucks. Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner, Joe Cole, and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) are the college-age youngsters in search of the next gig; their raw energy and dirty roadie allure a mere tough exterior they portray. As we soon find out, they’re urbanites from Portland inexperienced in the ways of mortal peril.
A friendly tip leads them to the backwoods of Oregon and a seedy venue that’s “right-wing, or maybe very far left.” It’s neo-Nazi territory, and that reality becomes all too real when Yelchin’s guitarist walks in on something he wasn’t supposed to see. The gang of skinheads, led by a muted and subtly malevolent Patrick Stewart, shut down all escape routes and 911 rants, so the terrified musicians lock themselves inside their green room with a crying bystander (Imogen Poots) and the crime in question:
A young woman laying on the floor with a bloodless shank sticking out of her temple, her killer standing over her with a sneer and a twitchy gait, just ready to yank out the shank when someone spits out: "Where's the blood?"
What follows may be a delirious siege; a slash-and-dash piece of horror; a claustrophobic thriller that knows the grime and grim nature of this world, and knows how to write characters whose dumb choices make sense for them. Those details don’t make the story at heart any less depressing though. I’m typically not one to balk at gratuitous violence, and to be honest I can't even call it gratuitous here. However, I do require either emotional investment or, you know, "fun," to handle something like:
A man getting choked to death to the point where his stomach rips open, intestines spilling out from beneath his shirt
The four characters are barely on screen fifteen minutes before shit hits the fan. The audience barely knows them enough to care about who lives or who dies. The average horror film gets by on a cavalier attitude because it’s not taking anything seriously. It’s an exercise in Friday night carnival barking — come see your favorite young studs and starlets get hacked to bits in cartoonish style. Except Green Room isn’t cartoonish in the least. The production design is so authentic you can almost smell the molding walls and steaming wounds, particularly when:
Yelchin's arm is sliced up by a machete, his hand dangling at the edge of his wrist, the bloodcurdling sounds escaping from him nearly as disturbing as the image itself
The cast sell it all to hell and back. Anton Yelchin does in-over-his-head better than anyone, and Joe Cole stands out as the wannabe action hero of the group. He’s pretty damn good with jiu-jitsu but can’t tell the difference between bullets and cartridges. In fact, nearly every character is projecting something that they aren’t. Imogen Poots is a funky-haired gal hanging out with neo-Nazis because black people scared her as a child, but when push comes to shove she can’t hack it. Literally. She’s not one of them. She’s a scared little fish from a small pond surrounded by lizards.
The most interesting of those lizards isn’t Patrick Stewart’s baritone club owner Darcy, it’s actually one of his underlings. Macon Blair is wonderfully understated as the second-in-command who doesn’t get his hands dirty, and you get the feeling it’s not because he’s a professional like that or some such nonsense — it’s because deep down he’s not a murderer. He’s doing this because it’s all he knows. If Saulnier brings any depth to this sordid affair it’s in the margins, where an underlying theme of learned aggression is laid bare.
Much like the gaggle of angry young men following Darcy around, there are actual weaponized lap dogs at their disposal — pit bulls to be exact. These animals have clearly been bred for dog-fighting. Their aggression is a learned behavior, ingrained from puppyhood by their sadistic masters — an extension of Saulnier’s potent, if haphazard, statement on the nature of violence and prejudice in America. In spite of itself, his punks vs. skins battle royale is sadly relevant to the country’s current political landscape.
For me, Green Room gets a B-. It wants that slasher aura while also maintaining its street cred, making everything — every gunshot, every stabbing, every machete slice — feel real as fuck, man. For someone with a full belly and a front seat, it’s stomach-churning, unnerving, and uncomfortable watching human depravity up close without much release. A greasy ensemble and engrossing thesis make Green Room bearable. Maybe I’m just getting old.