Bruised, battered, raw and visceral, Green Room is merciless and malicious — a full-on assault to the senses that doesn’t give a damn what you think of its unflinching violence or brutal gore. And it’s all the better for it. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin follow-up is prickly, punchy, provoked and prone to anger, and it might just possibly be the leanest and tightest film we’ve seen so far this year. There’s not one ounce of fat on its bones, and it knows how to get in-and-get out with persistence and a vengeance. It’s a wire-focused, supremely confident piece of work. Saulnier immerses you head-on in its dread-filled vibe, doesn’t ever relent and, in the right moments, knows how to get deep under your skin. It’s a gnarly little affair, one that’s never afraid to mean business at any turn. But with that all said, for all its fighting spirit, it lacks a firm bite.
It’s hard to figure out what exactly keeps Green Room from being a really good movie. Because all the right ingredients are there, and it’s certainly not from a lack of trying. It follows The Ain’t Rights, a low-rent punk band consisting of bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and singer Tiger (Callum Turner), as they travel on chump change and near-sighted dreams in a van on “tour” across the Pacific Northwest. They steal gas from parked passengers, eat the free Mexican food their last venue gave them and drink themselves silly on cheap booze whenever possible. They’re just a couple kids trying to get the most out of life, really. But that doesn’t pay the way for their travels or expenses. Their penny-pinching can only take them so far, and they need some legitimate dough if they want to keep themselves moving. And that’s when neo-Nazi skinheads come into play. As they do.
After one of their “higher-paying” gigs falls through, Portland radio host Tad (David W. Thompson) has a solution for their current money woes: his cousin is associated with the local skinhead movement (sorry, ultra-left movement) nearby and, though they can certainly be a tough crowd, they’re willing to pay well for their services. And so, bucking up and putting their game faces on, they take the deal and make their way to the extremist bar — which is miles and miles away from the rest of civilization in the backwoods of who-knows-where. They know a good story can come out of this ordeal, and they joking play Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off” to seal the deal. And while that ruffles some hairless folks’ feathers, that’s not what gets them in trouble.
After their set, Pat runs in the backroom to get Sam’s charging phone and sees something he never, ever should have seen. From there, they’re taken under the neo-Nazi’s vicious watch, with fellow skinhead captive Amber (Imogen Poots), as they must find a way to beat owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) against his next course of action. And over the course of one bloody night, The Ain’t Rights will find things are far from alright.
If there’s one thing Green Room doesn’t lack, it’s edge. It’s brutal, raw and bloody in ways most films don’t even try to be these days, and there’s a hint of pride in its veins as it tries to push itself towards the breaking point. But with that said, it doesn’t seem to have any fun in its naughtiness. It’s hardcore, sure, but it doesn’t really have an overwhelming purpose or hard-hitting message. Like Blue Ruin, Sauliner explores what makes good people go towards their breaking point, and studies what defines right and wrong with one’s life is put on the line. More or less what brings out the depravity of man. It’s a familiar passage, but one the filmmaker does well in his own right. His goals are simplistic, but nevertheless sincere. Sauliner knows what he wants to get across, but I still get the sense he doesn’t really have a strong point or any demanding themes to his work. It’s vicious, but not quite malicious. It knows what it needs to say, but I still get the sense Sauliner doesn’t really have a reason for why that should to be said.
But good filmmaking is good filmmaking, and Sauliner is still one hell of a filmmaker. Green Room is never less than effective in its unsettling dread. You can feel the fraught intensity in every frame; there’s hardly a moment where you’re not in a state of total distress towards the second half. And as the body count begins to pile up, you’re constantly inching closer in your seat, wondering just how these kids are going to get out of their predicament. It’s a taunt little number, one that shows assurance and diligence to its craft even during some of its false notes. But like some great punk sounds, it blasts fury, spit and thunder with little care for reason.
Despite fine attention to character motivation, especially as it continues onward, you never get a firm assessment of these characters, both good and bad. Some restraint is commendable — particularly towards Amber’s hazy reasons for being a member of this group in the first place — but more often than not, it makes our leads feel a little too flimsy or, worse, completely disposable. When it comes to The Ain’t Rights, Pat and Sam are the only ones that stand out, and that makes half the band pretty interchangeable. All they really talk about is music, in mostly broad strokes. And even that seems a little disingenuous, though intentionally so. There’s nothing really to latch onto them, and that makes it hard to really care about them — especially as they meet their ends.
Even the skinheads themselves, including Darcy, are a little grey. Sure, they don’t want the police mucking things up — and they obviously have more-than-unsettling personal beliefs — but Sauliner chooses not to explore anything about them beyond skin surface (no pun intended). They’re mostly stock villains for this ride, and while that’s good enough, they’re merely opposition for our protagonists to overcome. No more, no less. And that’s fine, but a little one-note.
At every turn, Green Room decides to keep it simple. And, again, that’s respectable in a lot of ways. It keeps the atmosphere frigid and a laser focus. But it also makes you hard to really dig yourself into the music on full-blast here. You admire the tight licks and hot skills on stage, but you never feel compelled to dive headfirst in its mosh pit. Even when you want to enjoy the impressive showmanship on display, you always have to admire it from afar. And that kinda leaves you bobbing your head for all the wrong reasons.
But that’s not to take away from what’s truly exceptional about this film. Sean Porter’s cinematography is quietly stunning, Julia Bloch’s editing is razor-sharp, Brooke and Will Blair’s music always keeps you in-tune with the film’s rhythm and the violence, while a little repetitive by the end, always packs a blow thanks to Joe Badiali’s shockingly meticulous make-up work. And the acting all-around from this talented cast is commendable, though Poots and Shawkat are the standouts of the bunch. Those two often give depth to their characters where the page may not allow.
Stewart, while given a role of a lifetime here, doesn’t ever get enough playground time to truly relish the role, while Yelchin plays the helpless bystander role well-enough, but also comes across a little limited. And while it’s nice to see Macon Blair return to work with his Blue Ruin director as Gabe, Darcy’s questionable right-hand man, he often feels like an afterthought to the story-at-large.
Unless you’re extremely put off by gritty violence, there’s no reason why Green Room should leave you blue. It does exactly what needs to, and it does a stellar job with that in the precise little moments. Yet, I couldn’t help but want just a little more. The dark comedy that drove deep throughout Sauliner’s last indie smash doesn’t shine as often here. Well, except during the very first shot and the almost pitch-perfect final line. And in the end, it can’t help but make Sauliner’s third film feel a little, well, second-rate — even though he’s clearly grown more diligent and crisp as a filmmaker. I know there are only great things to come from him, and I can’t wait to see where he goes next. But Green Room somehow feels both full-force and held back in its ambitions. I just wish it stopped for a moment to figure out what’s behind the music. But with that said, it’s still punk as fuck. And that’s good enough.