The way I felt watching Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room this weekend is the way I imagine unsuspecting French audiences who saw the short film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat back in 1896 felt. Totally blindsided by moving images of a train up on the screen, the Parisian moviegoers ran screaming in terror to the back of the theater for their own safety. The film was so real and so visceral that it had an actual physical effect on them. It’s the type of reaction that film can (and honestly should) have on audiences, and it’s something this oft-jaded viewer is constantly in search of.
Well, I found it. Good Lord, did I find it in Green Room.
The movie opens on a struggling 4-piece punk band (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, Joe Cole) in the midst of a tour near the Oregon coast. Broke and desperate for cash, they find themselves siphoning gas out of random cars just to keep their own van fueled and the tour moving. Along the way, they stay the night with a young punker who had promised to set up a show for them the following day. They come to find out, however, that en route to this promoter’s apartment, the show they were slated to play fell through. Feeling sorry for the band, the punk offers them a replacement show at a bar where his cousin works – with one caveat: it’s a skinhead bar. When the band tries to assess the inherent danger of the situation by asking if the skins are the kind that wear “red laces“, the punk doesn’t help put their mind at ease when he explains: “They’re far-right. My cousin isn’t so bad. I never discuss politics with him, though. You should be fine.” It’s not the most reassuring send off, but hey – it’s a paying gig.
Things are off to a rocky start once the band arrives at the bar, which is in the middle of nowhere. No one – not even the bar manager – seems too thrilled to see this group of young, hip twerps. But, despite a few antagonistic interactions between the band and the patrons, the show goes off without a hitch. It’s only when our quartet is unloading their gear from backstage after the show that the trouble really begins: Yelchin, retrieving Shawkat’s cellphone from the green room, walks in on something he definitely wasn’t supposed to see. After a bit of panicked confusion over how to handle the situation, the four punks lock themselves in the green room for their own safety. Soon, the owner of the bar (played by a terrifying Patrick Stewart) shows up with a handful of red lace-wearing skins and, from the other side of the door warns the band, “Whatever you saw or did is no longer my concern. But let’s be clear: it won’t end well.”
Now, making nazis and skinheads come off as scary or intimidating doesn’t take a lot of work, but the actors in this film (including Saulnier muse, Macon Blair) really sell their parts. Sure, there’s the occasional expected mean mugging, but the skins here are also portrayed with a gleefully unsettling calmness – as if they’re totally desensitized to everything they see and do. Really, all the performances are top-notch which helps to sell the reality of the situation even more. The band actually feels like a group of friends, their fear feels very real. The star of the show in Green Room, however, is skinhead-with-a-heart-of-gold, Imogen Poots. She’s a sympathetic character caught up in the mêlée who gets locked in the green room with the band. It’s a close call, but I’d say she has the biggest character arc, with her allegiance shifting from her cue ball-headed crew to these strangers who were just trying to play a show. Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how spot-fucking-on Poots’ hairstyle is. (Really, all the design work for this movie – from costumes, to hair, to the tattoos, to the interior of the music club itself – is frighteningly accurate).
Prior to its limited opening, the adjective that kept popping up in Green Room reviews coming out of the festival circuit was “brutal”, and they’re all right: the movie is almost too much to handle. Aside from the unflinching realistic violence, the movie manages to ratchet up an unbearable amount of tension, creating a final product that is physically exhausting to watch. It’s a 95 minute panic attack. From the moment the band shows up at the bar, each successive scene antes up the dread, and I found myself sitting there, rigidly anticipating the shit hitting the fan. The floodgates are finally opened with a one-two punch that is so shocking and unforeseen, that it sets the tone for the rest of the runtime: no one is safe, you realize, and you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen to anyone.
Green Room is the third full length feature from director Jeremy Saulnier (following Murder Party and the impeccable Blue Ruin) and completes his self-assigned “inept protagonist trilogy”. Indeed, each of his films features a lead (or in Green Room‘s case, leads) in situations way over their heads. Saulnier’s heroes are flawed, and not in some romanticized or charming way; instead of skill or ability they rely mostly on dumb luck. This makes for great and unpredictable storytelling. There are no rules or constraints here, anything is possible. It’s a bygone type of dangerous filmmaking you don’t see much of anymore.
If you’re feeling a little too desensitized lately and want to see something that’ll really shake you up, go see Green Room.