Ever walked into a bar and realised, a little too late, that it’s really not your scene? Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature Green Room takes that idea to something of an extreme, in the process setting itself down as one of the more remarkable thrillers of 2016 so far. And one of the more remarkable horrors. The film straddles the line between the two. Advanced warning; this one’s not for the squeamish.
We’re introduced to the Ain’t Rights; a no-frills punk rock outfit eking their way around the states, unperturbed at the prospect of siphoning petrol just to get them to the next town. When the latest stop on their ramshackle tour gets cancelled, they settle for a sketchy alternative in order to pay their way back across country. It’s a decision they may or may not live to regret as their mysterious matinée show takes them out into the sticks and into skinhead territory.
Things are just about going fine and they’re all set to make a move having gotten paid when Sam (Alia Shawkat) inadvertently complicates matters by seeing more than she should. There’s been a murder on the premises. Things escalate quickly, and the Ain’t Rights find themselves in a struggle for survival against the bar’s operators, lead by coolly menacing Darcy (Patrick Stewart).
To say anything more about plot details would spoil a thoroughly tense and engaging rollercoaster ride, one that relies on wits and guile as much as adrenaline or brute force. Saulnier elevates his leads by affording them skills and intelligence, marking them out above so many gaggles of tormented teens seen over the years in lesser films. They’re a resourceful bunch, and they need to be. Anton Yelchin nominally leads the group as Pat, but there’s a bedded in sense of established history between them. It helps sell the band as a unit, they feel legitimate and therefore worth rooting for. Something which makes watching Green Room all the tougher when events don’t go their way, which is a lot of the time.
Saulnier stepped into an immediate spotlight two years ago with his tough cookie sophomore flick Blue Ruin, a revenge yarn that drew more than a handful of comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ first feature Blood Simple. While that connection was not always justified, it remains high praise, even if it came with a backhanded suggestion that Saulnier was standing on the shoulders of giants.
Green Room is pointedly removed from such direct reference points. It’s a tougher, meaner experience. There’s humour here, albeit of an incredibly dark stripe, yet the foreboding seriousness of the situation forever holds court. Saulnier is developing as a filmmaker, etching his own distinct style into the rock of cult cinema.
For Green Room is a little too brutal to find significant crossover potential (more’s the pity). This is the kind of film that crops up every now and then (see Kill List, Eden Lake, Wolf Creek), catching attention for its occasional, vicious side-swipes, but perhaps undervalued in terms of craft and technique. The kind of thing you’ll overhear spoken about with phrases like, “Hey guys, I saw this movie and it was so fucked up…” even though, comparatively speaking, there’s far worse out there. Word of mouth hyperbole will help Green Room, but it won’t express the full range of accomplishments the film evidences.
This is a tight, sensible little production that makes exceptional use of a confined and controlled location, focuses on performances and rarely if ever appears anything other than adeptly executed. The photography is beautiful, despite the frequently ugly subject matter, and Saulnier’s script keeps events ticking along, mutating the situation for and against our trapped heroes, smartly altering the balance from one scene to the next.
Trapped along with the Ain’t Rights in the grotty titular green room are home-turf tough guy Justin (Eric Edelstein) and innocent(?) bystander Amber (Imogen Poots). Their presence adds another level of tension to the dynamic. Things are similarly nuanced on the other side of the door. Darcy puts a lot of faith in bar manager Gabe (Macon Blair, star of Blue Ruin), but one senses Gabe might not have the stomach for the events already in motion. Add short tempers, attack dogs and shotguns to the situation and you’ve got yourself a riotously combustible little thriller.
While it feels a little premature to deign Green Room a future classic, it certainly has the chops to become one of the most memorable films of its kind doing the rounds right now. For Saulnier this feels like a stepping stone to more expansive opportunities (in the same way that Adam Wingard’s The Guest has opened several new doors). On this evidence anyone looking to bankroll his career can be almost guaranteed a satisfactory return, at least in terms of highly proficient filmmaking. Whether that means he’ll have to sacrifice a little of the bite remains to be seen. For now I’d urge you to catch Green Room, but prepare yourself for a share of wincing.
Green Room is out in UK cinemas from May 13th.