Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner, David W. Thompson, Eric Edelstein, Joe Cole, Kai Lennox, Macon Blair, Mark Webber, Patrick Stewart, Taylor Tunes
Released: May 13th, 2016
Much like with director Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin, his latest positions itself as something of a straight genre film with bigger ambitions underneath the surface. With Ruin, Saulnier was keen to allow the audience to piece together the story of the protagonist as he pulled back the layers at his own pace, but the real trick was that he kept audiences transfixed the whole time despite the fact we lacked large chunks of context. In his new feature, Green Room, Saulnier once again works from a script solely of his own doing, but instead of teasing out the challenges our main characters face this time around our “heroes” are placed on the front lines against their very visible enemies-Saulnier standing between them ready to let his checkered flag fly at any moment. This choice to not rely so much on mystery seems to come from nothing more than a need to tell a different story in a different way, but the tendency to want to hold back seems natural to the writer/director as the backbone of Green Room‘s plot (but not all of its tension) relies on the audience knowing the immediate threats of the situation without knowing what originally put these events in motion. It’s a keenly crafted screenplay that tends to get slightly redundant near the end despite its already slim running time. That said, the main objective for the multiple protagonists is never unclear and the conspiring reasons they find themselves in the situation along with several other factors that come to be of critical importance are introduced in a sharp fashion. It is not the storytelling that will fascinate here though, but rather the way in which Saulnier and his team are able to balance the downright horrific nature of what unfolds in front of us while keeping the tone that akin to something of an eighties era slasher. There is a heft, an integrity even to a number of characters and events, but there is also a very knowing tone, a sarcastic or rather a very punk attitude to the whole affair that elevates what is essentially a hostage thriller to that of a true rebel among its genre trappings.
In Green Room we are promptly introduced to The Ain’t Rights, a hardcore band from outside of Washington, D.C., that consists of lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner), drummer Reece (Joe Cole), guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat) who are making their way across America, siphoning gas and playing gigs for the pure bliss of sharing their music live. The band has a very firm position on the preciousness of music and how it is truly intended to be heard and the lack of any real texture in the current music scene due to the onslaught of virtual marketing that allows consumers to take such skill and labor for granted. Music is an organism to the members of the band; a living, breathing life form that they create and bring into the world so that others may experience a singular, fleeting energy with them before it is lost forever. It’s an admirable position to hold in our society of instant gratification, but sticking to their guns presents issues in booking paying gigs. Despite the fact they’re not in it for the money they are still human beings and have to eat and pay for gas to make it from gig to gig. After yet another gig that falls apart due to false promises The Ain’t Rights are in desperate need of both cash and motivation. Feeling bad about his inability to come through for the band a young promoter (David W. Thompson) promises the band a better paying show not too far out of their way with the catch being it takes place at a venue run by maniacal skinheads. It’s a third-rate gig to be sure and a generally risky one, but it pays and after their long and unsuccessful tour they will take whatever they can get. Upon the completion of their set, Pat stumbles upon a scene in their dressing room he and his band mates were never meant to see. This sets in motion a face-off between the band, a new ally in Amber (Imogen Poots), and the club’s owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart).
There is nothing especially engaging about any of the members in The Ain’t Rights right off the bat, though the members played by the more well-known actors are certainly given more development. They are twenty-something punk kids who have rebelled against the system and their own development to the point some seem convinced this tour was the final nail in their adolescent coffin. Not realizing what they’ve come across and not prepared for any situation that entails such drastic real life repercussions, the characters who survive the longest naturally develop over the course of their being held hostage with the mortal circumstances dictating which sides we see from them. Of course, one could say this of any film especially those where the characters are put in a dire situation, but for Green Room Saulnier isn’t making the film about a definitive moment that defines who these people really are as we would expect him too, but rather the personality, the state of mind, the state of being and that ever looming question of “To be, or not to be,” that comes to the surface as many of the characters we come to know are forced to stare death in the face. By giving the audience slight indicators at the beginning of the film as to who these characters are outside of the films main plot Saulnier lets us know that while humans will inherently fight for their survival that if they are given longer to contemplate and weigh the factors of relevance and obstacles the desire to go on can genuinely grow to be less and less. Of course, within the film there are going to be those who audiences will need to root for and thus there are characters who find the desire of what might still lie ahead for them too great to give up on and so we get what we hope our own selves would do in such a situation, but that the film even goes about exploring such thoughts is interesting and compliments the stage the band is at with their stance on music quite nicely. If there is no hope of becoming the purest form of your original ambition, what is the point?
While the previous paragraph is what came to mind when talking about Saulnier disguising a deeper discussion with that of a pure genre film this doesn’t mean he doesn’t take advantage of placing such a conversation within genre trappings. In fact, while such talks could easily become heady and pretentious Saulnier is sure to ground his film with specific shot choices that elicit laughs, cringe-inducing violence that will make you squirm, and an overall tone that is somehow able to make what we know we should be cowering from an inviting and fun excursion. While the dialogue is exceptionally natural and delivered by performers who convey a genuine level of casualness along with various added quirks much of this looming feeling of dread paired with camp fun is made possible by the presence of Patrick Stewart as the patriarch of this skinhead movement. Placing someone as well-regarded and classy as Stewart is generally thought to be in a role that asks him to be diabolically charismatic is an idea that meshes reality with fiction and captures lightning in a bottle. While I might have liked to see Stewart have a little more to do here than he ultimately does there is no mistaking the weight he brings to the role and the proceedings. His Banker is a bored with his elegance baby who takes out his droll sense of humor and need for control in a lethal and sometimes terrifying way. His lack of any real reaction when it comes to the films bloody violence paired with the way in which he delivers already cold lines such as, “Let him bleed. Later is better for time of death,” in an even colder fashion give both the character and the film an edge it might not have possessed were such words coming from another, not as regal, presence. Blue Ruin star Macon Blair is strong in a supporting role while his brothers, Brooke and Will, supply the eerie and always impending score. Yelchin, Poots, and Shawkat are equally as fine and it’s nice to see the likes of Mark Webber and Kai Lennox getting work in such solid material, but the real star here is Saulnier who, without seeming to try, has crafted a horror film that is as wicked as it is fun.