Hey, have you guys heard the one about how Green Room is like a punk rock version of Assault on Precinct 13? Oh you have? Cool. I’m glad you read the same movie sites I do. The genre and mood are just about the only things Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin shares with John Carpenter’s unsung masterpiece. Green Room isn’t exactly an explosive film, but rather a grimy, mohawk-shaped siege thriller featuring outbursts of grisly violence and a downright chilling performance from Patrick Stewart.
The Ain’t Rights are an outfit of young, hungry punk rockers limping along to the next stop on their tour across the Pacific Northwest. Things are so bad that they’re reduced to playing the lunch rush at a Mexican restaurant. At the end of their rope, a local DJ books them a gig at a neo-Nazi dive bar in the sticks outside of Portland. After playing a mostly successful set, band members Pat (Anton Yelchin) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) accidentally witness some of the bar’s shady backroom business. A standoff ensues, with the band holed up in the bar’s (*ahem*) green room and manager Darcy (Stewart) marshaling his skinhead goons (including Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair) to take them out.
The setup is a simple one that allows Saulnier to slowly put the screws to his characters one scene at a time. Death constantly looms around the corner, and once the action starts, many scenes end with a sudden outburst of violence. The band’s first negotiation with Darcy concludes in a scene straight out of a zombie film, and its effects echo throughout. Saulnier will stage acts of violence for dramatic effect, showing us characters reacting in horror rather than the violence itself, but he has no qualms about lingering on the aftermath. Put simply, I hope the sight of exposed bone doesn’t make you nauseous.
Green Room is a scrappy little film, fighting tooth and nail for every bit of tension it can muster. Scene to scene, this works rather well. This film is full of individual moments that are absolutely killer. But while things move at a decent clip, the film can never seem to sustain that tension. There’s no mounting sense of dread or feeling that the film is building to some final confrontation. It winds up robbing the film of a sense of closure, but at the same time somehow feels like a more honest conclusion than your typical Hollywood affair.
Similarly, Saulnier doesn’t shy away from tossing in some unexpected moments of humor. He’ll build the tension of a scene, gearing the band up for a huge confrontation only to defuse it immediately with a gag. Then, of course, comes the double-fakeout and I think I’ve already said too much. The fights that break out in Green Room both do and don’t go the way you expect, which some might find frustrating. Instead of anticipating the horror, it’s best to just let the film take you on its wild little ride. It helps that the film is a lean 95 minutes, absolutely refusing to overstay its welcome.
Also, the cast is largely well-chosen. Anton Yelchin does some excellent work as everyman Pat. With his slight demeanor and fragile ego, it’s just as hard to picture him as a dyed-in-the-wool punk rocker as the hero of an action thriller. He uses that quality to generate some real pathos, otherwise we’d never care whether or not he made it out of Darcy’s bar alive. It’s the same quality that made him such a good lead in the Fright Night remake. (Speaking of which, Yelchin reteams with Fright Night co-star Imogen Poots, who plays a neo-Nazi forced to team up with the band through sheer circumstance.) And, as mentioned earlier, Patrick Stewart is nothing short of frightening as Darcy. He doesn’t get much to work with, but the timbre of his classically-trained voice stands in stark opposition to the skinhead trash doing his bidding. Honestly, half the reason Darcy works is because he’s played by Patrick Goddamn Stewart.
Though Green Room suffers from some pacing issues, it’s a film whose nihilistic worldview and stark violence come together with unexpected humor and humanity to create a thriller not easily forgotten. While the neo-Nazis are clearly evil, the film’s view of hero and villain is defined by little more than who is or isn’t trying to kill the Ain’t Rights. The experience of Green Room is not one through which friendships are forged, and while that might come across as antagonistic, it’s more authentic for it. As far as thrillers go, that’s a pretty ringing endorsement.
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