Early on in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, the main characters, members of the touring punk band The Ain’t Rights, are given the opportunity to lay out the director’s thesis statement. When a mohawk-bearing interviewer asks why they have no social media presence, guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) says, “The music is shared live. It’s time, and aggression…you gotta be there.” Tactile, visceral immediacy is the heart and soul of punk music; it’s why clubs like CBGB lose their credibility when they achieve fame. The realest punk music is being played in basements and garages and other DIY venues without liquor licenses, not places that sell t-shirts from behind the bar but stages in backrooms where the line between the performers and the audience is blurred to the point of nonexistence.
Green Room is at once an ode to and a cautionary tale about the punk ethos. The movie opens with the four main characters passed out in their touring van in the middle of a cornfield somewhere east of Portland, Oregon. They proceed to siphon gas from cars in a skating rink parking lot before driving to their next contact’s pad, the aforementioned mohawk-bearer upon whom they are depending to schedule their next gig. Through a series of events that will feel familiar to anyone versed in the horror genre, The Ain’t Rights are directed to a backup-backup gig at an ominously remote neo-nazi bar deep in the woods, where the situation quickly spirals out of control.
The skinhead bar is Green Room’s cabin in the woods, a location so separate from civilization that you know there’s no chance of getting help once things begin to go inevitably wrong. Within the club is the titular backstage room, in which The Ain’t Rights witness a murder and are subsequently trapped with skinhead bouncer Big Justin and unknown entity Amber (played by Imogen Poots). The tension ratchets up slowly, and the audience realizes how much danger The Ain’t Rights are long before the band themselves, whose stage personas are tough enough that they open their set in front of skinheads with a cover of The Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” By the time Pat gets his hand mostly severed from his arm, the band members have given up their only advantage (a five-chamber revolver that Patrick Stewart’s level-headed antagonist Darcy talks them into forfeiting) and are forced to commit their first murder in self-defense.
The violence in Green Room is exactly what The Ain’t Rights want their music to be: in your face, emotionally charged, and impossible to ignore. Never before have I been in a movie theater where multiple groups of people left the screening before the film ended, but my Manhattan showing of Green Room lost about a tenth of its audience before the third act began. The movie itself is far less graphic than any R-rated zombie film, but it deploys its gore purposefully and with attention paid more to the after-effects than the cause. Pat’s hand is “reattached” via a liberal application of duct tape, and later on, when attack dogs brought in by the skinheads begin ripping out band members’ throats, people are left to die from bleeding out rather than put out of their misery. Everything from machetes to shotgun shells are used to destroy bodies, but the aftereffects, often played out in real time, are what really turn your stomach.
I’ve written a lot about the use of violence in film on this site, and Green Room is one of the best examples of a violent movie that earns every one of its action sequences. Apart from Darcy, who orchestrates the bloodshed from the periphery, no one is safe. More importantly, the participants in the violence are scared, not only of what might be done to them but of what they are about to do. Unless it is a specific part of their character, no one in Green Room is a methodical sociopath. The band members take no pleasure in hurting others.
* * *
Green Room's violence is emphatic because the rest of the film is so well constructed. The characters have complex relationships that never need to be spelled out in dialogue, and the cinematography is deliberate and beautiful without ever resorting to any in-your-face flashes of virtuosity that might distract from the story. The nearly-singular set is immaculately constructed, from the black-painted venue space to the mix of band and white supremacist stickers that paper the green room walls. Subtle touches in the costumes invoke character and place: Alia Shawkat’s armless Dead Kennedys’ shirt speaks to the lateness of the hour in the punk scene, while one of the biggest scares in the film comes from the reveal of a set of red laces on black combat boots.
Patrick Stewart plays Darcy with reserved cool, but the real star of the villains is Macon Blair’s Gabe, who manages the club and tries his best to keep the situation from becoming violent before simply hanging his head and power-washing blood from the walls. Gabe’s essential humanity is underplayed, making both his skinhead allegiance and tendency to be undervalued by his employer understandable and believable. All of the skinheads are given some degree of humanity, whether it be their affection for their vicious dogs, their fear of disappointing their leaders, or their dedication to “the cause,” yet only a few ever stray into sympathetic territory, and rarely for long. There are no inhuman monsters attacking our heroes, which makes the brutality all the more terrifying when it erupts.