3.5 stars. Rated R, for brutal graphic violence, gory images, profanity and drug content
By Derrick Bang
This is a nasty little chiller ... in the best possible way.
That said, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s gory survival saga definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. The unsettling premise is reasonable enough to be quite scary on its own, and the vicious, suspenseful execution is the stuff of nightmares. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...
Saulnier burst onto the scene with 2007’s high-camp gore-fest, Murder Party, which evoked pleasant memories of 1992’s Dead Alive, Peter Jackson’s early-career exercise in similar bad taste. (Well ... pleasant memories for those who go for such things, anyway.)
Saulnier got a lot more serious with his second outing, 2013’s Blue Ruin, which made respectable noise at Cannes and numerous other film festivals. Clearly, he was a filmmaker to watch, and Green Room — his newest exercise in nail-biting tension — is further proof. It belongs in the grand tradition of Straw Dogs, Assault on Precinct 13 and even Night of the Living Dead, all of which trap small groups of people in enclosed spaces, vastly outnumbered by evil forces determined not to let them escape alive.
Things begin quietly enough, as we meet the scruffy members of a hardscrabble punk band dubbed The Ain’t Rights: vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole). They’re nearing the end of a road trip/tour that has netted some artistic satisfaction but little in the way of cold, hard cash; they’re tired and discouraged.
This introduction is handled economically by Saulnier, who in a few quick scenes tells us everything we need to know about these twentysomethings. Pat is the philosopher; Sam keeps everybody in line; Tiger and Reece are the hardcore punkers. Minor larceny aside — clandestinely siphoning gas, when they lack the funds to fill up their van — they’re reasonably decent folks: just another enthusiastic quartet of musicians trying to get noticed.
After a potentially lucrative gig falls through, they accept a replacement booking, to play an afternoon set at an isolated, rundown club deep in the Oregon backwoods. Their arrival is greeted with quiet suspicion by the locals, many obviously of the skinhead/white supremacist persuasion, but the club manager — Macon Blair, as Gabe — seems friendly enough.
Foolish enough to tempt fate, our heroes deliberately bait their Nazi-esque audience by opening with a cover of a notorious Dead Kennedys tune. Saulnier holds on the subsequent silence, as the song fades; it feels like the calm before a violent riot. But then the Ain’t Rights slide into their own original material, which the crowd clearly digs; by the end of the set, all is well.
Everybody is pleased; compliments are shared, and Gabe cheerfully parts with the promised cash payment. Our young protagonists could have departed safely at that point, except that Pat unexpectedly rushes back to the club’s green room, where Sam has left her cell phone charging.
And he comes upon the scene of a just-took-place murder: one young woman dead on the floor, another cowering in the corner, and a vicious thug — likely the killer — standing over the body. As Pat tries to digest the implications, Gabe rounds up some buddies, shoves the rest of the band members into the green room, hands a gun to the thug, and slams the door, after a nervous promise to “handle the situation.”
The thug is Big Justin (Eric Edelstein), and he’s not about to let anybody out of the room, even as Pat and his band mates grow increasingly agitated. The frightened witness is Amber (Imogen Poots), apparently one of the locals.
Elsewhere in the club, Gabe has contacted owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart, of all people!), who arrives quickly, assesses matters, and decides upon “damage control.”
And that, boys and girls, isn’t likely to go well for the Ain’t Rights.
Thus far, the escalating atmosphere of menace has generated plenty of nervous tension, Saulnier clearly playing with our worst fears. But once that door closes, all bets are off; what happens next — involving machetes, knives, guns, attack dogs and an expertly wielded box-cutter — erupts in full-splatter mode.
The subsequent carnage unfolds in clearly defined chapters, Saulnier cleverly pacing the situation as he blends the grue with unexpected bursts of macabre humor.
No surprise, Stewart is a persuasively malevolent villain. Banker’s cold pragmatism is perfectly logical, given his situation — and what he’s actually trying to protect — and that makes him quite scary. Early on, trying to defuse the situation by calmly chatting with Pat through the locked green room door, Banker is seductively grandfatherly: a business owner trying to defuse a horrible situation on his property.
The band members waver — they want to believe they’ll be allowed to walk away, to just get out — while we mentally scream, Don’t listen to him! Amber echoes that sentiment, but Sam doesn’t trust her; she’s one of Them. All the while, Stewart employs his Shakespearean voice to maximum effect, promising this, and that, until...
...but that would be telling.
Yelchin and Shawkat, the most seasoned actors within the quartet, make the most of their screen time. Pat ultimately gets the script’s best monolog, when he shares a long-ago incident with strong implications for the current situation: an anecdote that Yelchin delivers with conviction. The fatalistic moral likely has been embraced by many a warrior under similarly helpless circumstances.
Shawkat’s Sam is both feisty and frightened: close to overwhelmed by the situation, but determined to stand her ground. The busy Shawkat always stands out, even in small supporting roles; she’s likely recognized from her long run on TV’s Arrested Development, along with memorable big-screen work in Whip It, The Runaways and Cedar Rapids. Pat and Sam are an unspoken team here — possibly an item, at some point — and thus we root for them equally.
Turner and Cole, on the other hand, are somewhat interchangeable; we simply don’t bond that well with Tiger and Reece. (Make of that what you will.)
As it turns out, Amber becomes the most fascinating character, and considerable satisfaction is derived from watching this young woman emerge from her terrified shell. Poots is terrific, initially allowing us to believe that Amber is little more than a smart-mouthed skank, and then subtly revealing hidden depths of resourcefulness and stubborn pluck; it’s like watching a particularly deadly flower blossom.
Blair straddles a fascinating line, as Gabe; we wonder whether he’s a reluctant participant — and therefore on the side of the angels — or an eager-beaver acolyte waiting for the opportunity to win the “red laces” that Banker bestows on his most trusted lieutenants.
The rest of the skinheads are creepy precisely because of their uncomplicated anonymity: just like the waves of faceless gangbangers who kept charging those trapped inside the abandoned police station, in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13.
Mention also must be made of a particularly photogenic pooch, which Saulnier uses in the third act, to toy with our emotions and expectations. (He does that a lot, and is quite good at it.)
Ryan Warren Smith’s production design is simple but effective; the dilapidated club looks suitably grotty, its various rooms — and particularly the green room — designed with all sorts of corners and corridors, to enhance what’s-coming-next tension.
Everything comes together quite stylishly, down to the last snarky one-liner (as mordantly philosophical as the final exchange between Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz, at the end of 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods).
That said, this isn’t an experience to be undertaken lightly.
You’ve been warned.