I’ve never been a punk, or a punk rocker, or really much of a punk rock fan, so maybe I’m not the audience for this movie. Maybe it was the unfortunate seat in the second row, so close to the screen, so close to the unflinching carnage. Maybe it was the sub-par cheeseburger and milkshake afforded to me by the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, Texas. Maybe it was none of those things. Either way, “Green Room” was an unpleasant experience saved by intriguing actors and some admittedly impeccable craftsmanship.
Starting out, Jeremy Saulnier’s film is a slice-of-life of the sort of hand-to-mouth existence small-time punk bands encounter on the road, getting drunk, getting lost, betting on sketchy venues to make a measly three-hundred bucks. Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner, Joe Cole, and Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development” fame are the college-age youngsters in search of the next gig, their raw energy and dirty roadie allure a mere tough exterior they portray. As we soon find out, they’re urbanites from Portland inexperienced in the ways of mortal peril.
A friendly tip leads them to the backwoods of Oregon and a seedy venue that’s “right-wing, or maybe very far left.” It’s neo-Nazi territory, and that reality becomes all too real when Yelchin’s guitarist walks in on something he wasn’t supposed to see. The gang of skinheads, led by a muted and subtly malevolent Patrick Stewart, shut down all escape routes and 911 rants, so the terrified musicians lock themselves inside their green room with a crying bystander (Imogen Poots) and the crime in question.
What follows may be a delirious siege, a slash-and-dash piece of horror, a claustrophobic thriller that knows the grime and grim nature of this world, and knows how to write characters whose dumb choices make sense for them. Those details don’t make the story at heart any less depressing though. I’m typically not one to balk at gratuitous violence or emotional torture porn, however, to put up with either I require one of two things: fun or, you know, emotional investment.
The four characters are barely on screen fifteen minutes before shit hits the fan. The audience barely knows them enough to care about who lives or who dies. The average horror film gets by on a cavalier attitude because it’s not taking anything seriously. It’s an exercise in Friday night carnival barking. Come see your favorite young studs and starlets get hacked to bits in cartoonish style. Except “Green Room” isn’t cartoonish in the least. The production design is so authentic you can almost smell the molding walls and steaming wounds.
Despite the lack of cathartic thrills, the cast sell it all to hell and back. Anton Yelchin does in-over-his-head better than anyone, and Joe Cole stands out as the wannabe action hero of the group. He’s pretty damn good with jiu-jitsu but can’t tell the difference between bullets and cartridges. In fact, nearly every character is projecting something that they aren’t. Imogen Poots is a funky-haired gal hanging out with neo-Nazis because black people scared her as a child, but when push comes to shove she can’t hack it. Literally. She’s not one of them. She’s a scared little fish from a small pond surrounded by lizards.
The most interesting of those lizards isn’t Patrick Stewart’s baritone club owner Darcy, it’s actually one of his underlings. Macon Blair is wonderfully understated as the second-in-command who doesn’t get his hands dirty, and you get the feeling it’s not because he’s a professional like that or some such nonsense, it’s because deep down he’s not a murderer. He’s doing this because it’s all he knows. If Saulnier brings any depth to this sordid affair, it’s in the margins, where an underlying theme of learned aggression is laid bare.
Much like the gaggle of angry young men following Darcy around, there are actual weaponized lap dogs at their disposal, pit bulls to be exact. These animals have clearly been bred for dog-fighting. Their aggression is a learned behavior, ingrained from puppyhood by their sadistic masters, an extension of Saulnier’s potent if haphazard statement on the nature of violence and prejudice in America. In spite of itself, his punks vs. skins battle royale is sadly relevant to the country’s current political landscape.
“Green Room” wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants that slasher aura while also maintaining its street cred, making everything, every gunshot, every stabbing, every machete slice feel real as fuck, man. For someone with a full belly and a front seat, it’s stomach-churning, unnerving, and uncomfortable watching human depravity up close, without much release throughout. A greasy ensemble and engrossing thesis make “Green Room” bearable. Maybe I’m just getting old.