About a half-hour into Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, where the cumulative details of pallor adolescents moshing in the least local of locals (a skinhead roadhouse/venue in rural Oregon) take shape, the sensory details signal a film that runs on some pretty heavy fuel. That is, of course, before the tempered siege of violence has reached a rolling boil; before the red laces, the snarling dogs, the microphone feedback, or, eventually, the shotguns. The series of calamities that prompt Green Room’s excesses in lacerating violence is realized less like the hardcore and punk tracks that ornate the film’s soundscape, and more like a symphony: a sonata-allegro opening, expelling necessary plot and character elements rapidly, paving the way to a thoughtful and carefully-orchestrated vision of sinister purpose.
Saulnier places his would-be heroes, a hardcore/punk band known as The Ain’t Rights, on the fringes. Traveling in a ramshackle van, the cadre – Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) – are first seen passed out in a field, forced to siphon gas. Adhering to a rigid philosophy that minimizes their social media presence and highlights experiencing their live shows, the band’s stubborn deviance of modernity finds them playing infrequent and barren gigs. Defeated, the band accepts an invitation to play at a remote venue – “don’t get political” cites the mohawked promoter giving them the details – with the promise of a respectable payday.
As with Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin, there’s a quiet acknowledgment on behalf of Green Room’s characters that suggests a passing familiarity with suffering. What I mean by this is that the characters in his films may live on the fringes, and more or less pay lip service to having endured the pangs of the quote unquote human condition, but the lesson in Saulnier’s two films have been that the pain and horror of existing hasn’t truly been tested. And as Green Room unfolds, where The Ain’t Rights come across a gruesome murder after their gig that forces them to fend off hordes of neo-Nazis (led by the subdued charisma of Patrick Stewart), it’s then that these characters confront pain and suffering in a capital T, True way.
Tense and compact, Saulnier wisely paces Green Room as a series of negotiations before indulging in violence. From his characters hustling a gun out of the hands of the venue’s bouncer (Eric Edelstein) to utilizing information from third-party trapped in there with them (Imogeen Poots), Green Room is as much a series of arbitrations as it is an all-out war. But when Saulnier does submit to some of his more carnal tendencies, boy, does he know how to break his characters and, subsequently, his audience in inventive ways. Death is afforded gravity; shock is derived from not just from the grisliness of the action but the way in which Saulnier confronts it. It’s direct, it’s unaccommodating, and like the warzone that it alludes to, it occurs on both sides.
While the narrative spirit of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 lingers most prominently in Green Room, it’s Saulnier’s direction, the components that at times registers as anti-Carpenter, that makes this such a compelling exercise. The primal score, a cacophony of punk music, provokes an instinctual dread compared to Carpenter’s more attention-grabbing synthetic compositions. And while Assault’s narrative sees faceless aggressors take siege on abandoned police station – a depleted reservoir of authority – the aggressors in Green Room are as dimensional as its heroes. In Patrick Stewart, Saulnier’s gambit is constructing a monster whose wrath possesses an air of sophisticated thought. If Assault was a statement on the capacity of capable professionals overcoming insurmountable odds against a faceless oppressor, than Green Room sees that oppressor as its dominant figure – a fully-formed beacon of sinister purpose attempting to squash whatever glimmers of humanism that comes from the naïve and youthful. It’s to Saulnier’s credit that his work registers as just as significant, timely, and powerful as Carpenter’s. Perhaps more so.