Green Room was one my most anticipated films in 2016. Every review of talked about the shocking levels of violence and the riveting suspense. It did live up to expectations but not in a way I expected. On the surface, Green Room isn’t the most violent film in the world but thanks to writer/director Jeremy Saulnier, it is wields an enthralling, if simple, narrative and harnesses an aura of pure menace to ramp up the anxiety.
Before audiences are put on edge though, Saulnier has a bit to say about punk rock although I am not entirely sure what. We are introduced to a four-man punk rock band, ‘The Ain’t Rights’, and they are somewhat presented as relics. They hold onto the purity of live performances and don’t have (or can’t afford?) any social media presence. If I didn’t know better, I would say Saulnier was mocking punk rock music and his subjects’ commitment to an art form lacking any subtlety. But then, I am a Ghanaian who has never entertained the possibility of listening to any punk rock record. My judgment is skewed here.
This punk group consist of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Tiger (Callum Turner), Sam (Alia Shawkat) and Reece (Joe Cole). The characters exhibit varying traits and degrees of agency but they are united by their passion for punk rock, a passion that has been very unrewarding thus far as we painfully see them make less than the Ghanaian minimum wage for an embarrassing day time gig. Siphoning fuel from other cars for their van also appears to be daily thing for them because pockets are dry. Times are tough, so tough that a gig at a neo Nazi bar is accepted with zero trepidation but I guess it does help that they are all white.
But being white can only take you so far when the question being asked isn’t one of race but one of simply tying loose ends. After performing for the white supremacists, the film sparks to life when Pat has the misfortune of walking into the aftermath of a murder. From then on it slowly becomes clear that the powers that be in this bar have no intention of letting the guest rock band leave alive as is evidenced by an interesting shot of a barred gate as they initially arrive. There are a few moments like that seemingly foreboding shot that hit at how deliberate this film is.
I went from thinking Saulnier was maybe mocking some form of naive purist punk rock culture to thinking he maybe wants to see punk rock cruelly slain as the Nazi’s lock up the band, alongside Imogen Poot’s Amber, who is a stakeholder in the aftermath of Pat stumbling onto the murder. They wait for the club owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) who embodies the contentious nature of Saulnier’s direction and much like Saulnier, Banker doesn’t really look like he enjoys punk rock so murdering the band to cover up the crime is no big deal. As it turns out, murdering them in the more violent ways provides the more prudent solution.
As I said earlier, this isn’t the most violent film in the world on the surface. But there are layers to Saulnier’s use of violence vis a vis the two groups of characters, the hunters and the hunted. On the one hand we have the chaos, fear and spontaneity that comes with the cornered group. They are the ones forced to react to the vicious antagonists. On the other hand we have Darcy’s icy calculated efforts at violence, a final solution to the loose ends meant to be as painful for them as can be – again more in line with our directors handling of this film. Characters without meticulous plans don’t last long. Saulnier has no patience for them.
Darcy wants to stage a crime scene, a case of trespassing gone wrong, to leave something plausible for the police to find. He would prefer his men hack and stab the band to death or rip at them with vicious bloodthirsty dogs. The screenplay develops holes when you begin to wonder why Darcy wouldn’t opt for a quick fix with guns leaving him more time to clean up after the mess. To the film’s credit, we don’t spend too much time wondering given the tense ship Sualnier runs. Anticipation of death is worse than death itself (who’s quoting Hard to Kill in 2016) and Saulnier executes his violence in such a way that he leaves a chunk of it to the imagination. He isn’t driving for blood and gore. Just a mutual atmosphere of palpable dread that filters through the screen.
What is this film’s point though; to make us feel alive in a way only horror cinema can, to laugh at punk rock, an exposition on the nature of violence? It never really is clear and that is a bit of a bother although, on a basic level, Green Room works with the ethos of kill or be killed. The substance may be in question but the package isn’t. The stylized violence is tasteful, the texture of the film offers this raw grimy appeal and the thoughtful juxtaposition of the tomb-like Nazi bar and free woodland surrounding it speak to Saulnier’s savvy explaining the thin line his characters unintentionally crossed.
Saulnier also garners some strong performances. Yelchin stands out here, convincing as the guy who stumbled into a hornet’s nest. The fear, the shock, the pain he conveys is visceral at times and he serves as an able audience surrogate. Stewart, I have not seen like this before, projecting this calculated frightening homicidal tranquillity as the perfect extension of our director’s undeviating approach. Then there is a Saulnier collaborator in Macon Blair who presents an interesting middle ground, the only character who spends quality time with both sides and appears like a guy we have actually met.
Petty flaws notwithstanding, I will not hesitate to call the Green Room is a thriller of the highest order. Our director harnesses the essence of the horror genre to juice up his edgy taut script and there is some black humor trying to rear its head here. Commendable restraint notwithstanding, I do have to say this would have been an all-time favourite if Saulnier embraced a more sardonic streak.