Whoo, boy. That escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast. –Ron Burgundy
Green Room tells the story of the Ain’t Rights, a touring punk rock group with a deliberately limited following. This is in large part because they don’t do social media or online downloads or anything digital at all. For this group, music is all about tactile instruments and the physical sensation of being there in the crowd of a concert. So it is that the Ain’t Rights drive around in their beat-up van, getting from one gig to another on gas illegally siphoned from unattended cars.
Then they had the misfortune to book a gig somewhere in the boondocks of sweet home Oregon. Things seem to go well enough, until the Ain’t Rights meet the bar’s resident house band in the green room. And someone from the other band is lying dead on the floor with a knife in her skull. Somebody calls 911, the bar’s management gets involved, and everything immediately spirals into a category five shitstorm.
So many things happen all at once that I barely know where to begin. Suffice to say that the bar is actually a front for some kind of white supremacist cult that pays the bills by manufacturing heroin. I think. Seriously, everything flies by so quickly that anything solid in the way of exposition is tough to come by. All we really need to know is that this bar is run by some nasty people and they don’t want any cops snooping around the place for any reason. Which means that this murder has to be covered up. And the cover-up is botched in such spectacular fashion that it starts a vicious cycle: Our victim pool knows that something shady is up, so they fight harder to escape the bar, which leads to the cult fighting back, which leads to more dead bodies, which leads to both sides getting even more desperate.
Like I said, things get really ugly really fast.
(Side note: It bears repeating that the film was set and shot just outside my beloved hometown of Portland. And I’d like to state for the record that my state has a very long and ugly history with systemic racism, and rural Oregon is every bit as redneck conservative as any state in the former Confederacy. So while I’m not aware of any Nazi strongholds like this in my backyard, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they exist.)
The film is only 95 minutes long, and things move at a breakneck clip. On the one hand, this unrelenting speed means that we barely get enough time to register who the characters are and what they’re after. What makes it even worse is that the antagonists often speak in a cryptic shorthand, and it’s often hard to tell whether they’re talking about things that haven’t been revealed yet.
Of course, the breakneck pace has a major upside as well. As a survival crime thriller, the tension mounts beautifully without ever letting up. We’re talking about two hours’ worth of graphic blood and violence — inflicted with all manner of weapons — and it’s stuffed into 95 minutes. This means that even if we have no idea what’s coming, it’s going to come fast, so even the possibility of imminent violence carries weight. Granted, the film may not make much of an artistic statement, as no deeper theme is ever given the space to take hold, but the movie is so damned merciless in every possible way that it still works as a bold and intelligent nail-biter.
Naturally, a lot of that has to do with the visuals. The editing works with clockwork precision, and there’s an impeccable sense of atmosphere that does the film all kinds of favors. From the gorgeous sweeping shots of Mt. Hood National Forest to the dark and filthy bar to the grey and antiseptic drug lab, every frame succeeds at setting the proper mood. What’s even more impressive is that the filmmakers accomplish this while leaning very heavily on one particular color. There are so many different shades of green used throughout the picture that the color could either be pleasant and relaxing or sickly and off-putting. It’s fascinating, really.
Then we have the cast. Our de facto protagonist is Pat (Anton Yelchin), lead guitarist of the Ain’t Rights. He’s joined by Sam (Alia Shawkat) on bass, Reece (Joe Cole) on drums, and Tiger (Callum Turner) howling incomprehensible obscenities into the mic as the lead singer. They don’t get much in the way of individual personalities, though it’s clear that Pat and Sam are the cooler heads constantly keeping the fiery tempers of Tiger and Reece in check. There’s a very clear chemistry between them and they work surprisingly well together, so that’s enough of a reason to emotionally invest in their survival.
Another member of the victim pool is Amber (an unrecognizable Imogen Poots), a member of the house band who watched her friend get killed in the green room. So she gets swept up in all this madness and she has to fight for her life alongside her new allies, though she at least has the advantage of knowing the territory and who they’re up against. There’s a lot more going on with her, but I don’t dare spoil anything more.
Getting to our antagonists, there are really only two worth mentioning. One of them is Big Justin (Eric Edelstein), an ogre of a man who gets locked in the green room with our victim pool as they alternate holding each other at gunpoint. The other one is Darcy, the leader of our Nazi cult, played by Sir Patrick Stewart himself. Seriously, picture a man charismatic enough to literally inspire a massive cult following, charming enough to earn anybody’s complete trust, monstrous enough to commit multiple crimes against humanity, smart enough not to get caught, and unpredictable enough to switch from one to the other on a dime. Now imagine that such a man is played by Sir Patrick Stewart. What more do I have to say?
Green Room is a perfectly taut suspense thriller, powered by tight plotting and breathtaking direction from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier. The visuals are inspired, the Pacific Northwest setting is beautifully used, and the performances are all great fun to watch. Even if the film doesn’t have much in the way of an explicit theme or artistic statement, it’s so clever and brutal with such incredible tension throughout that the film still works as an intelligent and enthralling piece of work.
This is definitely one to check out if you’ve got the stomach for it. But be advised that you may want to see it two or three times so you can be sure to catch all the action and exposition flying around.