Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal thriller feels even more urgent and frightening now than it did upon release.
Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s serrated razor thriller that follows luckless punk band’s attempt to survive an assault by murderous neo-Nazis, is five years old (six counting its appearance at Cannes). Watching it in 2021 is a different experience compared to watching it in 2016. It’s bittersweet to take in Anton Yelchin’s terrific lead turn as bassist Pat, given his death in a horrific freak accident that year. It’s bitter to know that empty creeps like Tucker Carlson would look at Patrick Stewart’s neo-Nazi crime lord Darcy and his band of openly fascist, hate-fueled, racist goons and say “they’re doing nothing wrong” to their nationwide audience.
The world shifts, and with it the experience of partaking in culture. But, while that shifting is inevitable, Green Room remains Green Room. In other words? It’s a terrific thriller that uses its geography and its carnage smartly. It handles tone precisely. And in Yelchin and Stewart, it has two stupendous performances that anchor a strong ensemble cast and contrast each other in fascinating ways.
After a prologue that introduces struggling punk band the Ain’t Rights (Yelchin’s Pat – the bassist; Alia Shawkat’s Sam – the drummer; Callum Turner’s Tiger – the vocalist; and Joe Cole’s Reece – the drummer) and their dire circumstances (an unexpectedly cancelled gig strands them states away from home, and taking a last minute gig at a right-wing skinhead club’s a way to get some badly needed cash), Green Room confines itself mostly to the title location and the club that surrounds it. Director/writer Saulnier and cinematographer Sean Porter (20th Century Women) turn the setting into a tightly packed box of nightmares.
Barring a brief, transcendent moment during the Ain’t Rights’ show itself – a moment in the zone where the band gel and the rancid crowd get over themselves, the set and its presentation are consistently and deliberately stifling. Sometimes, this is literally true – as when the band are playing or early in the stand-off where they’re locked in the packed green room with a murdered woman, her best friend (Imogen Poots’ Amber), the white supremacist black metal band whose leader murdered her, and the club’s mountain of a bouncer (Eric Edelstein).
In other cases, Green Room’s claustrophobia is more metaphorical – when Darcy clears everyone but his goon squad out of the club, the Ain’t Rights and Amber have a lot more space to move around. Space that they and the audience both know is controlled and known by those who wish them dead. Every corner is blind. Every door is a trap. And as the night comes on and the violence refuses to end, the certainty of doom boxes Saulnier’s protagonists in ever further. Dread is constant, heightened and honed by the brief moments of hope Saulnier weaves in alongside astoundingly brutal violence.
Paradoxically, Green Room’s carnage speaks well to the humanity Saulnier and company bring to the cast. This is not a film that revels in cruelty and sadism, nor is it a picture so concerned with emphasizing the negative consequences of violence that it reduces its protagonists to suffering stick figures. Attention is paid. The pre-club prologue gives Yelchin, Shawkat, Cole, and Turner space to build the Ain’t Rights history as a band and as individuals. They’re a lovable bunch, full of idiosyncrasies, loves, and unsanded edges. When things go to hell, their splendid humanity remains – and amplifies the gutpunches that come with horrendously violent death.
While Green Room is first and foremost a horrifying thriller, it is not devoid of cool. But that cool does not come from acts of violence. It comes from character. Consider this excerpt from the screenplay:
INT. GREEN ROOM – CONTINUOUS
THE UNLOCKED DOOR WHIPS OPEN.
Kyle steps in, sees A SKINHEAD WITH A MACHETE beside the couch, back turned, looking down the hole in the floor.
SKINHEAD: (loud muttering)
DOWN THERE. DIPSHIT FASHION PUNK CLOWN MOTHERFUCKERS!
Jonathan’s in next, pulls the .25 AUTO from his belt.
JONATHAN: TURN AROUND!
SKINHEAD (muttering): Shazbot…
KYLE: WHAT? WHO IS THAT?
The Skinhead turns, IT’S PAT, SHAVED HEAD, WEARING BIG JUSTIN’S JACKET, HIS FACE COVERED IN SHARPIE ‘WAR PAINT’.
PAT: Odin himself.
PAT DROPS THROUGH THE HOLE, DISAPPEARING INTO THE FLOOR.
It’s a terrific thriller that uses its geography and its carnage smartly.
Pat is traumatized (emotionally and physically), terrified, grieving, and has accepted his probable death. Yet still he and Amber rally and decide to make a hell of a Hail Mary play. When Pat declares that he is “Odin himself”, it is put simply, genuinely freaking cool. It’s courage and daredevilry and a pointed middle finger to his would-be murderers – given that Nazis, their malignant offspring and other dead-eyed losers who wrap themselves in the pasteboard lies of white supremacy have a history of appropriating and perverting Norse mythology. It’s an iconic moment.
It is also perhaps Yelchin’s finest moment of acting in Green Room, a summation of his character that speaks to the strength of his performance throughout. Pat, for all that he can be indecisive, is a smart, insightful, and above all else compassionate guy. He looks out for his bandmates and extends compassion to Amber – a woman he has every reason to distrust and a fair few reasons to hate. And for all that he’s terrified throughout, for all that he breaks down into traumatized sobs or numbness, he is far from a coward.
In Darcy, the great Patrick Stewart builds Yelchin a momentous and monstrous foil. Aside from the immediate contrasts between the two (young Jewish punk vs. elderly Nazi) Stewart is Yelchin’s opposite at every turn. Where Pat is able to perservere through trauma, Stewart spends the film subtly freaking out – lashing out at his subordinates and repeatedly clinging to whatever promises a resolution to his problems. His affected geniality never fully crumbles, but it slips frequently. Where Pat has genuine bonds, Darcy has subordinates and transactional relationships.
In the end, Darcy proves himself a coward – his final act is to flee from Pat and Amber while his last goon throws himself at them. He’s smart and dangerous, but at the end of the day he’s a hollow, hateful old man who cannot hide his rotten, pathetic soul from the young man he spent a night terrorizing and trying to murder.
Yelchin and Stewart do terrific work in a terrific film. Five years on, Green Room stands as home to one of the finest hours of a stupendous actor who died way too young, a fine villainous turn from one of the all-time great performers, and tense, unforgettable filmcraft. It’s an essential movie.
And the grammar Nazi joke is an all-timer.