I approached Green Room with as degree of caution. Not because of the much-vaunted ‘extreme violence’ – I was pretty confident that I had seen plenty of films that would make this look like wholesome family entertainment – but because over the last few years, almost every much hyped genre film to come along has proven to be a severe disappointment. All too often, while certain critics and online commenters gush over a new film, I find it to be self-indulgent, self-important and spiritually empty. I could list a whole bunch of titles here, but there is a reasonable chance that you could easily guess which films – and filmmakers – I’m talking about. So the critical circle jerk surrounding Green Room was more off-putting than enticing.
So let me state this up front: Green Room is something of a masterpiece.
The thing that ultimately makes this film great, when so many of its contemporaries fail, is that it doesn’t try to be smarter than everyone else. Writer / director Jeremy Saulnier isn’t trying to be cool and subversive – instead, he’s telling a tight, gripping story in a straight-forward manner, riffing off classic paranoid thriller films (you can see reflections of Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and Night of the Living Dead, among others, in this film) while keeping things very fresh and modern. It’s essentially a new version of an old-school exploitation movie, ripping along (it’s 95 minutes long; it feels shorter) and being confident in its own intelligence enough not to have to rub it in your face throughout.
Green Room opens with frankly dreadful punk band The Ain’t Rights – Pat (Anton Telchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) – on a none-too-successful tour of the Pacific Northwest. Initially, they seem a pretty annoying bunch – woefully clichéd punks (this a deliberate thing on the part of the film makers, rather than the clueless stereotyped punk characters of 1980s movies) and no-hopers. On first impressions, I didn’t relish spending a film with this lot as the central characters, but having established them as a going-nowhere band with delusions of grandeur (early on, they are interviewed and come out with little more than laughably, dated, clichéd punk ideas of authenticity), the film then allows each of them to develop as a more rounded, identifiable character.
When their latest gig earns them less than $7 each, they accept a (relatively) well paying gig near Portland, even though they are warned that it is in a right wing skinhead venue. In fact, the place turns out to be an isolated bar in the woods, more compound than anything, populated by white supremacists. Dismayed at their audience, the band start their show with a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s Nazi Punks Fuck Off – at which point, you expect the hostile audience reaction to become something more threatening. Instead, the band then seem to win over the crowd with their remaining show, and seem all set to get out of the show in one piece and with $350 in their pockets – until Pat returns to their dressing rom to retrieve a phone and stumbles onto a murder scene, with club psycho Werm (Brian Werzner) standing over the body of Emily, who has a knife in her neck. Also present is a near hysterical Amber (Imogen Poots). Immediately, the band is locked in the room by bouncer Gabe (Macon Blair), with gun-toting Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) keeping them from leaving. As club owner and Neo-Nazi leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart) arrives to engage in a spot of damage limitation – which does not include letting the band walk away from this – the Ain’t Rights and Amber are forced to fight for their lives, their prison also acting as a bunker from which they have to battle Darcy’s army of thugs (the red shoe laced skins) and somehow find a way to escape.
Saulnier does that most difficult of things here – something that many horror filmmakers try and fail to do. He introduces us to a bunch of characters who initially seem to be irritating assholes, setting them up as the victims that we might relish seeing get picked off one by one. And then he subverts that, allowing them to become humanised and rounded, so that we will actually feel more emotionally torn when the bad shit starts to happen. This is not easy – most horror films* these days feature incredibly annoying characters who remain incredibly annoying throughout. You don’t care what happens to them, you just wish it would happen as quickly as possible. In Green Room, we feel the plight of the characters – and not just the main ‘hero’ characters. Cleverly, he allows his villains to be more rounded than you might expect, and even makes some of them eventually seem as much victim as the band. While some of these characters are soulless, psychotic killers, others seem to be caught up in something that they have no control over, and which they would desperately like to get away from. In fact, this sense of being trapped doesn’t simply apply to the events of the film – we discover (in some cases) and sense (in others) a longing to break free of the life that they are leading from a few characters amongst the Nazis. Even Darcy seems oddly trapped, by a world of his own making and unwelcome events outside his control.
This is one of the most powerful aspects of the film. It’s easy – and understandable – to make the white supremacists into one-dimensional stereotypes. But it’s more interesting, and more affecting, to allow them to be humanised. At one point, the film briefly touches on the life experiences that have brought Amber to this world (she denies being a Nazi), and it almost might have been interesting to have explored that more – but to do so would have needed the film to stop and allow a debate about the causes of racism, and that would have seemed too forced, too contrived. But this is, ultimately, a character-driven film, and for that to work, all the characters have feel like real people. And they do.
The film is, of course, intensely violent. And it smartly allows that violence to build in intensity – initial scenes set up a sense of menace and building explosion (we expect the gig to explode into a riot – it doesn’t, pulling the rug from under us and keeping us on our toes, knowing that narratively telegraphed events may not actually happen) and then increases the levels of nastiness as it goes on. It’s not so much that the gore in the film is especially extreme, or the violence is overly graphic. But it feels very real, and very relatable – this is not the explosive gore of the horror film, but the sort of painful, hands-on organic violence that makes you wince. There were visible sounds of distress from the audience I saw it with, and they were not all during the most explicit scenes.
And the violence seems more real because we have an emotional bond to the characters by this time. Considering this, Imogen Poots is all the more impressive. We only meet her some way into the film, when we have already spent time with the band, and she is part of the neo-Nazi world (there’s a question mark for a while about just how much we can trust her). That she becomes the central focus of the film – and that this actually works – is very impressive. Of course, part of the film’s success is that, like other siege movies, we never know who will be killed next – there are no obvious ‘first victim’ characters, and some of those who you might expect to at least make it to the final act are killed off early – and unceremoniously. The deaths in the film are not spectacular – they are random, immediate, often in the dark and so sudden that the audience is left in a state of shock.
The cast of the film are universally excellent – something we can thank both the actors and the writing for. Seemingly thankless characters are fleshed out, potentially annoying leads are made more human and everyone feels authentic. Admittedly, Patrick Stewart’s accent is a discussion point – at times, he seems to be affecting a slight American accent, at others not bothering. Is he supposed to be English, perhaps an Englishman who has lived in the US so long that he has a slight American twang? This sense of ambiguity is the only weak point in a nicely nuanced, menacing and controlled performance. It’s Poots who dominates the film though, at once vulnerable and hard as nails, potentially psychotic but ultimately sympathetic and likeable.
Saulnier directs with style, without ever becoming needlessly flashy, and keeps the fear factor cranked up. The film never really pauses for breath once it gets going, and is a winning mix of explosive action and gripping tension, the two elements carefully and effectively juggled, and leading to an ending that is, for once, entirely satisfying. The result is, unquestionably, the most impressive new film that I’ve seen in a long, long time. For once, you should believe the hype.
*Whether or not Green Room is a horror film will probably be a matter of personal opinion. I have a pretty fluid definition of the genre, so I’d probably include this.
Thanks to Broadway Cinema