You know that feeling when someone grabs you by the shirt, right at your breastbone, and twists. They’ve made a handle. They’ve got you. You feel unnerved by the lack of control you now possess. Now, imagine them twisting the shirt tighter and tighter. Its creases catch your skin and pinch. Your chest tightens. Your breath halts in fear. You are helpless in your fate. This is the sensation of watching Green Room.
The follow-up to writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s celebrated thriller Blue Ruin, Green Room is named for the claustrophobic location where much of its tension is wrought. Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner and Joe Coel star as a punk rock band taken captive by skinheads after stumbling upon a murder scene. Locked in a ratty green room with the corpse and a sobbing defector (Imogen Poots), they begin to realize there’s no easy way out. Outside the titular space, the punk club’s owner (Patrick Stewart fearsome and bearded) and his right-hand man (Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair) create a labyrinth of mayhem and murder that leads to a sickening and satisfying finale.
Here’s the part where I admit I was underwhelmed by Saulnier’s breakout, Blue Ruin. Maybe blame the hype, but I found it slow and gruelingly malicious. Green Room, however, lured me in with nostalgia and actors I know and like (including Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’s Mark Webber and the towering and intimidating Eric Edlestein, who ironically voices the gentle Grizz on the cartoon show We Bare Bears.)
The nostalgia comes not from some sort of pop culture throwback, but from the opening’s efficient and thorough character building of the band. Crashing in their van after a long day on the road, they literally crash into a cornfield. They share a cellphone and give each other support and shit, raging late into the night and overthinking their “desert island band” picks. This scrappy camaraderie took me back to my high school days, full of punk concerts in divey pockets that would have made my parents weep, and long nights spent suspended in smoke and pseudo intellectual debate.
When the band lugs their gear into the cement block of a club etched with graffiti, I could practically smell its dank. And as their screeching anthems blare across the speakers, Saulnier’s cuts to the mosh pit. He kills the diegetic sound, replacing it with a whoosh of white noise as he slo-mos the scene, elegantly capturing the unique bliss of the thrash. All this rooted me so firmly in this world, that the brewing threat of these “Nazi punks” around our heroes felt like Saulnier was sadistically jabbing a raw nerve.
Rather than tease big reveals of violence like so much horror today does with a stinging score, Saulnier slices his tension without score anticipation and with abrupt reveals of carnage and gore, shocking us simultaneously with our heroes. This is not the over-the-top blood spray of slasher flicks. Here, blood is thick and foreboding. Wounds are gut-churning and traumatic if not lethal. Characters wail and we see why.
Watching Green Room is a profoundly disturbing experience precisely because Saulnier embeds us so effectively with the band. And this grounded reality is enhanced by a stellar cast. Yelchin, sweet faced and earnest, makes for a perfect center to this hurricane of horror. Shawkat kicks off with her trademark sass, so watching her crumble as the things turn exponentially worse is distinctly devastating. And Poots, who has oft been cast as the quirky cute girl/love interest, gets some real meat here, playing a white supremacist who has no allies, being loathed by the band and a traitor to the skinheads. She manages to be both repulsive and compelling, carving out a character that is complex and cinematically badass as she weaves through a dark room with a lighter, a smirk and a plan.
Saulnier salts the wound by taking beloved sci-fi and internet icon Patrick Stewart and making him a monster. Like a general going to war, Stewart calmly delivers deadly demands and slyly lies to the captive kids. It’s beyond chilling. But to have these skinheads be a block of bad is a blunt move unbefitting of Saulnier’s emotionally rich and gnarled drama. So among the malevolent and mindless true believers, you also get Blair, initially cold and calculating, racked with doubt and regret as the body count rises. Cracks and fissures appear that promise to break every structure in this movie to pieces. Fuck any establishment.
Saulnier gets a little self-indulgent with the final act, which trudges along a bit too long. But overall, Green Room is a smart, sick and suspenseful thriller that is perfect for a night out with friends. Sure to spark those “what would you do” discussions, Green Room will prove entertaining and compelling long after the credits have rolled and the smoke has cleared.