May 19, 2016 - 4:42pm
There’s a good joke nestled in the early scenes of Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s dourly aggressive, in-your-face thriller about a scummy rock ‘n’ roll gig gone horribly wrong. The movie centers on a hardcore-punk band – four scowling but naïve middle-class kids in ripped T-shirts and Day-Glo hair – who are hired to perform at a club full of racist skinheads in the dusky wilds of Oregon in the US.
After the show, one of the band members, played by the geekishly winning Anton Yelchin, discovers a dead girl lying on the floor with a knife in her skull. At that point, all the band members are trapped, surrounded by white-supremacist hooligans who want no police and no witnesses. Can our heroes fight and claw and manipulate their way out? Maybe so, but what’s savagely funny is the film’s suggestion that, like the clueless teen partiers in an old slasher film, they’re getting more or less what they deserve.
You might say that the band, called The Ain’t Rights, is in the middle of a tour, but they have almost nothing in the way of gigs, and so little money that their van runs on the stolen gasoline they siphon out of parked cars. What they incarnate isn’t the spirit of rock ’n’ roll so much as the lowly, dead-end dregs that several decades of encrusted rock nihilism have led to. Yet The Ain’t Rights think of themselves as noise-making idealists, too pure even to market themselves on social media. They pretend it’s their choice that they’re running on empty.
The club they wind up at is a grimy roadhouse suffused with raging bad vibes. Up on stage, The Ain't Rights try to make a statement by launching into an anti-Nazi anthem by the Dead Kennedys, which doesn’t exactly please the jackbooted thugs in attendance. Moments later, the reaction in the mosh pit settles down a bit to some slightly less venomous headbanging and beer-spewing. But only slightly. The joke is on our heroes: The Ain’t Rights are a “progressive” outfit who’ve fallen into the ninth circle of hardcore hell – but really, their caterwauling thrash music is a pure incitement to violence, as vicious in spirit as the sociopaths they’re playing to. They barricade themselves inside the club’s dank, windowless green room, taking one of the racists as hostage. But they’re in over their heads, and there’s a dark karma to how they wind up trapped in this prison cell of hate, a world of no exit and (to quote the Sex Pistols) no feelings.
Or, at least, that’s the idea. Saulnier, whose last film, Blue Ruin (2013), created gripping suspense out of the drama of a wildly improvised revenge, here creates a collision of subcultures: the bourgeois rock radicals who are play-acting at being rebels, and the ruthless neo-Nazis who, in their despicable way, may be the last true (ugly) face of rebellion.
We’re curious to see how this death cult operates, and when Patrick Stewart shows up, oozing sleek menace as Darcy, the skinheads’ aging leader, the answer seems to be: with maximum cunning. Darcy is full of cold strategies about letting a body bleed out so that the time of death arrives as late as possible, or going at the victims only with primitive metal weapons – no guns, nothing traceable. With the magnetic Stewart in charge, we’re eager to learn how evil could flow through the veins of someone this captivating.
But Green Room doesn’t want to go there. The racists on display here – even Stewart’s Darcy – are just glowering ciphers: they knit their eyebrows and gnash their teeth, but we never hear a word about what they they believe and why. They just serve the function of being the fashionable live-wire zombies our heroes have to get away from. After a while, you realise that Green Room, for all its flirtations with the trappings of contemporary social outlaws, is just a grimly ultraviolent and functional escape flick, with moments of virtuoso action but only the bare bones of a script.
Saulnier knows how to stage the slashing of somebody’s arm so that you feel like it’s your own. But he comes on at almost every moment like a prodigy of grimy neorealism, and that’s the problem with his direction. He can’t do a simple set-up shot without the camera curling around, reveling in the gradations of lurid punk light – which isn’t great filmmaking, it’s atmosphere laid on with a trowel. Halfway through, you realise that the movie is failing to supply any hint of dramatic trickiness or genuine suspense. It doesn’t build – it just grinds on.
The gifted actress Imogen Poots is on hand as a choppy-haired punk waif who was friends with the murdered girl. Poots, whose features are delicately expressive, nails the part of a basket case who wears her disaffection like a tiara. At one point, when it looks as if they’re all going to be killed, she and the members of The Ain’t Rights take turns blurting out who each of them would choose as their “desert island” musician – and when she says Madonna, it’s the ultimate confession, laying bare how her straight-edge misanthropy is just a pose, a fashionable cover-up for a little girl who won’t grow up. But that may be the sole moment in Green Room when one of the characters actually surprises you.