REVIEW: Green Room [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: April 15th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: A24
Director(s): Jeremy Saulnier
Writer(s): Jeremy Saulnier

“The energy doesn’t last”

It’s official: Jeremy Saulnier‘s Blue Ruin was no fluke. That pulse-pounding thriller wowed audiences a couple years ago with good reason and his follow-up Green Room only advances that success further. It’s as though he looked upon the climax of his 2014 gem and wondered what it’d be like to mold that powder keg of suspense into a full-length feature. His latest puts his players in their predicament very early and watches as the victims try to escape and predators enter. The numbers are about even at the start despite the mettle to kill greatly favoring those on the outside ready to pounce so it becomes a question of who’s most desperate. No one will leave the crime scene unscathed, but some might keep their lives.

The Ain’t Rights—Tiger (Callum Turner) on screaming vocals, Reece (Joe Cole) on drums, Sam (Alia Shawkat) on guitar, and Pat (Anton Yelchin) on bass—are in desperate need of a paying gig less to continue their grassroots, social media-less tour (they’re about the raw emotional power of a live show that an electronic recording or relationship with fans cannot match) than to simply get home without siphoning gas and stealing food. A new acquaintance fixes them up with his cousin Daniel (Mark Webber) and the caveat that the venue might be a bit hostile considering it’s a hard rock scene within an ultra conservative part of Portland. What he really means is that the audience will be confederate flag-toting, swastika-tattooed skinheads you don’t piss off.

And they don’t—at least not intentionally. Things go south when Sam leaves her cellphone in the titular “green room” for Pat to retrieve. What he sees inside is a dead body, a crying girl asking for help (Imogen Poots‘ Amber), and the headlining band oozing violent rage. Suddenly venue manager Gabe (Macon Blair) is advancing into full cover-up mode, figuring out a way to ensure his boss Darcy (Patrick Stewart) and their neo-Nazi cause remains intact. He puts Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) by the locked door with gun in hand and asks for calm before handling the police outside with a just-arrived Darcy. The band isn’t stupid, though, and Amber knows exactly what’s coming next. They have no choice but to ready for a fight.

Some are calling the film horror, but I’m not sure that’s accurate despite the claustrophobic nature of the incursion mimicking a You’re Next or The Purge. To me it plays more like Assault on Precinct 13 or Panic Room where the suspense elicits fear without necessarily providing scares. We align ourselves with the good guys and quickly despise the bad on principle whether some seem genuinely against Darcy’s scorched earth plan for resolution or not. We breathe a sigh of relief when a power outage meant to clear the concert hall exposes daylight through the floorboards. We hold our breath when a false truce leaves one of our inexperienced heroes with a lacerated arm that may cause vomiting. The brutality is unflinching, the action intense.

Saulnier carefully stacks the deck with minor details proving important later on. He puts a box cutter in play, relies on dogs afraid of microphone feedback for menace, and adds the subtlest bit of romance to turn a couple tables when necessary. Some of these details explode into shock-inducing, quick conclusions; some linger to provide a chance at victory against insurmountable odds. The only unwavering truths are Pat’s ability to stay calm despite the chaos, Amber’s quiet strength, Gabe’s uncertainty, and Darcy’s calculatingly vile mind. The latter knows exactly what must happen to keep blood off his hands and his followers will do anything to comply. While we know the band isn’t battle-ready, what about the skinheads? Enthusiasm is a far cry from efficiency.

The experience is captured with in-close cinematography to keep its surprises out-of-frame until the last possible moment. Climb out a window and someone may be waiting—the same with sticking an arm outside of a door. We don’t need to see everything when screams of agony are enough to expose the infraction. This adds to the claustrophobia because we’re literally trapped inside the concert venue as the enemy readies its perimeter and attack hounds. What makes Saulnier’s scripts more enjoyable despite the darkness, however, is his ability to inject dry humor when relevant to the story too. We giggle when carnage is masked by a vacuum cleaner’s whirr. We laugh when looming death forces everyone to finally name their desert island bands with honesty rather than street cred.

This stuff gives the characters three-dimensionality. They aren’t merely pawns moved around a board to the director’s whims. We know their motivations: Pat will shy from conflict, Sam will incite it, and Reece will protect them. Each does a great job embodying their specific types along with Poots’ Amber joining the band’s cause as the girl who would have died next had they not stumbled back into the room. As for the bad guys: Kai Lennox is scarily fierce in his actions, the skinhead pledges gleefully excited to kill, and Stewart’s Darcy a formidable evil whose quiet serenity makes him even more frightening. The fight isn’t really personal because there isn’t time to make it so. Instead it’s merely about finding your inner monster to survive.

[1] Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin. © A24 Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24.
[2] Patrick Stewart. © A24 Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24.
[3] Imogen Poots, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin. © A24 Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24.

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