US (2015) Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Music groups playing in every dive and hovel in their nascent days on the long highway to fame and fortune usually have plenty of tales to tell of their experiences on the road, with many within the milieu of rock and roll Babylon seeming too outlandish to be true but remarkably are.
For punk band the Ain’t Rights they would have one hell of road story to share with their grandchildren – if they live to have grandchildren. The four piece – singer Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) – are trying to get gigs in Portland, Oregon where punk radio host Tad (David W. Thompson) sends them to his cousin Daniel (Mark Webber).
The gig happens to be at a Neo-Nazi skinhead bar in a remote location and the band taunt the crowd by playing a cover of an anti-Nazi song but win them over with their own material. Later as they are about to leave Pat goes back to the green room to pick up a charging mobile phone, finding an apparent murder scene. Their departure blocked, the band are dragged back and locked in the room while waiting for the club owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) to arrive and sort things out.
Green Room has been labelled as a horror film but to be honest what happens in it is more horrific than horror. It is through the photography and clever set-ups involving the survival tactics employed that create this impression but they are just as viable in a crime thriller. I will concede that the atmosphere is unquestionably unnerving, the deaths are swift and the violence is unquestionably visceral and uncomfortable to watch.
For his third feature, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier deftly deceives us with the opening act as to what we should expect from this film and if one hasn’t read the synopsis first, the events as they unfold would seem almost impossible to predict. There is something of a mini-satire on the music business suggested in the acute detailing of the Ain’t Rights life on the road as impoverished punk rockers.
Beginning by showing the band’s van having “stopped” in the middle of a field, we follow Pat and Sam as they get some petrol for free (via the old rubber tube and a siphon) to make it to the meeting with Tad. During the interview, he asks the group to name their desert island groups and of course, they decry the mainstream names and stick to the punk groups, which becomes a running gag throughout the film.
The musical performances are handled with credibility and depict the glamour free experience of playing in a spit and sawdust club in front of a small and unappreciative crowd. The band may have been miming but they looked convincing, as was the anger of the skinheads during the anti-Nazi song (sans any attempts on the band’s lives which one would think would be the typical reaction from them).
From here, everything goes to hell when Pat walks in on the Neo-Nazi thugs surrounding the fallen body of a girl named Emily (the appropriately named Taylor Tunes) with a knife sticking out her skull. Emily’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots) pleads with Pat to call the police but he is intercepted by club worker Gabe (Macon Blair), who locks Pat, Emily and the rest of the band in the green room with Big Justin (Eric Edelstein).
However, the band and Amber aren’t happy with this arrangement and turn the tables on Justin but once the smooth talking Darcy arrives, it is not so much getting out of the green room that is the problem but stopping Darcy and his thugs from getting in! Saulnier seems to be very aware that the capital in restricting the action to one room can be limiting so this first subversion on the concept is very welcome.
Naturally, this eventually spills outside the confines of this grotty changing room but not before its potential has been exhausted – or so it seems. Once the sole door becomes a non-prospect via the violent reactions of Darcy’s men, a trap door to the basement is the next option but with every possible avenue covered by the thugs with weapons and rabid dogs, forcing the remaining protagonists (slight spoiler) back into the green room.
Unfortunately, the plot tapers as the film progresses, with the reason behind Emily’s murder glibly covered in one brief discussion late in the film and never spoken of again. Thus, we have no moral plane to judge the Nazi’s by other than they kill people who disagree with them and for the Ain’t Rights and Amber, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This means even a great actor like Patrick Stewart can’t make Darcy anything more than a one-dimensional villain with a ridiculous hold over his younger, equally amoral zealots. That said, it is creepy seeing Stewart play against type and he does it well, although I wish he would have spoken up and not whispered most of his dialogue.
Adding a tragic poignancy to the film is the passing of Anton Yelchin prior to its release. Seeing what his character goes through here makes it harder to watch with this hindsight, similar to the final shot to feature him in Star Trek Beyond, also released posthumously.
Green Room provides an interesting twist on an age-old concept and handles its major details very well and provides some decent visual shocks, although fleshing out the antagonists beyond just being Neo-Nazis is a glaring weakness to the script and an oversight that should have been addressed. A suitably grisly and entertaining way to spend 95 minutes nonetheless.