Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin is one of the more striking thrillers of recent years: a lean, no-budget flick that manages to generate an almost unbearable amount of tension while offering a thought-provoking exploration of revenge. Saulnier's latest effort is Green Room, which confirms that he's the real deal: the budget is slightly bigger and the cast features some familiar faces, but this is an equally lean, equally intense and arguably even more thematically complex piece of work.
Pat (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek), Sam (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development), Reece (Joe Cole, Peaky Blinders) and Tiger (Callum Turner, Victor Frankenstein) are members of The Ain't Rights, a struggling punk band traveling across the Pacific Northwest. Lately, they've been handed some fairly underwhelming gigs (including a show at a small-town diner that nets them less than $7 apiece), and they frequently have to resort to siphoning gas in order to keep going.
Eventually, the group books a gig playing for a crowd of angry neo-Nazi skinheads (“they're right-wing... well, technically ultra-left”) at a club in Oregon. It's certainly not the ideal venue or crowd, but it pays, so the show goes on as scheduled. Afterwards, the group wanders back into the green room and discovers that one of the skinheads has murdered a young woman. The band tries to leave, but the skinheads take their phones, lock them in the green room and order them to stay put until the situation is resolved. After a series of tense negotiations with the sinister Darcy (Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation), it becomes clear that the band won't be permitted to leave.
With remarkable efficiency, Green Room transforms from an observant, absorbing little slice-of-life movie into a ferocious, relentlessly intense thriller. The violence is bloody and brutal: arms are snapped like twigs, throats are ripped out by attack dogs and people are sliced up by everything from box cutters to machetes (at one point, a character observes that being merely being shot seems like a gift under the circumstances). Much of this unfolds within the confines of the increasingly blood-spattered green room (there are echoes of Assault on Precinct 13, and – unintentionally – of the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane), and it's a testament to Saulnier's talent that the film never feels gimmicky (indeed, this is one of those films that's so consistently gripping that you don't really think about the actual story construction until long after the fact).
Still, the attack dogs aren't the only ones who get something to chew on. Saulnier isn't just serving up a juicy exploitation-flick scenario (though he's definitely doing that), but using this violent situation as an opportunity to examine the cult of subculture and some of the interesting wrinkles of human nature. Both the punk musicians and the skinheads have members who are perhaps a bit less enthusiastically devoted to their particular cause than their outward personas would suggest (to be sure, one is vastly more dangerous than the other), and Saulnier cleverly underlines the way the tension of the situation begins to separate the posturing from the genuine beliefs (there's plenty of both). The film is smart about the way we re-shape ourselves in order to fit in with the people we've chosen to surround ourselves with, and it has a knack for expertly inserting stray lines of dialogue that reveal a great deal about these characters.
The performances are solid across the board. Yelchin – with that unmistakably uncertain voice and those hesitant facial expressions – is an ideal fit for the central role. Like Blue Ruin's Macon Blair (who has a memorable supporting turn in this film), there's an unmistakable fear in his eyes that never lets us forget that we're watching an ordinary human (even during the moments when he attempts to transform himself into an action hero). Imogen Poots (Need for Speed) does good work as Amber, a club regular who finds herself forced to fight for survival alongside the band members. When asked how she became involved with a group of white supremacists, she replies, “None of the people who hurt me were white.” It's also a little alarming to see how effective Patrick Stewart is as the menacing Darcy. He's an intriguing character: vastly older than every other member of his racist organization, smart enough to recognize the superficial rewards required to keep his underlings loyal and devoted and someone who keeps a close eye on the cost-to-benefit ratio of every move he makes (never batting an eye at the fact that the cost often includes human lives).
Saulnier operates with similar levels of precision and ruthlessness, trimming scenes down to the bare essentials (you never catch him basking in “atmosphere” unless he's doing something else, too) and cutting down his sharply-drawn cast members at an alarmingly rapid rate. He cares about these scrappy young band members, but sentimentality never gets the better of him. The ending is a cold punchline that drives home a hard truth about human nature: moments of crisis might help us recognize our shared humanity, but it doesn't take long for that unity to dissolve afterwards. Green Room is savage, nerve-wracking stuff that keeps working on you long after it concludes.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2016