Director Jeremy Saulnier found deserved acclaim in Cannes 2013 with his second feature Blue Ruin, a pulpy, melancholy revenge story that was rich in subtlety and sly surprise. But with his latest, Green Room, it feels like he’s slid back to the safety of his genre roots, evident in his gory comedy-horror debut Murder Party. That’s not to say that this tale of a punk band cornered by a gang of murderous white supremacists isn’t entertaining, because it certainly is, but it’s a less disciplined, less original and less memorable work than Blue Ruin. Even so, it’s likely to outstrip its predecessor in box-office terms given the draw of Patrick Stewart, gleefully taking some a belt sander to his good-guy image by playing the Neo-Nazis’ Gruppenfuhrer. Green Room‘s extreme levels of violence may cause certification problems in some territories, but it could have a blitzkrieg run on VOD.
The Ain’t Rights are a punk quartet from Arlington, Va., who’ve been doggedly touring the country, playing a series of venues so obscure, to call them dives would be a compliment. As their funds get ever lower and they’ve had to resort to siphoning gas illegally to stay on the rood, the mood in their Scooby van has turned decidedly tetchy. Friction flares especially between idealistic bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and truculent drummer Reece (Joe Cole), leaving guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat) and lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner) to play mom and dad to keep the peace.
They’re on the verge of calling it quits and heading home, when Tad, a journalist-booker (David W. Thompson), pulls in a favor from his cousin Daniel (Mark Webber) to get the Ain’t Rights a support slot for a matinee show at a roadhouse in deep-woods Oregon. It turns out the venue is packed with shaven-headed, swastika-inked white supremacists, who spit and throw bottles when the band play their first number, a spirited cover of the Dead Kennedys’ classic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Luckily, in a twist that shows wit and a canny grasp of the porous boundaries between subcultures, the crowd like the rest of the band’s set and they escape the stage unscathed.
Unfortunately, the afternoon takes a turn for the worse when one of the Ain’t Rights returns to the green room to fetch a cell phone and accidentally stumbles on a murder scene. One of the skinhead girls they’d noticed earlier has been stabbed in the head and lies dead on the floor, and things don’t look good for her frightened friend Amber (Brit Imogen Poots, doing a pretty good job with the American accent, and implausibly an even better one at making the distinctive skin-style Chelsea fringe haircut look almost attractive). Freaked out and justifiably afraid they won’t make it out alive – despite cobra-smooth assurances of safety from first manager Gabe (Saulnier-regular Macon Blair, star of Blue Ruin) and then the venue’s owner Darcy (Stewart) – the punks barricade themselves inside the green room with Amber and a skin heavy (Eric Edelstein) whom they manage to subdue.
From here on out, the film settles into a straight-up seize drama meets stalk-and-slash gore-fest mashup as one by one the punks are picked off as they try to escape, though they take a few skins down with them in the process. Characters are felled by machetes, have their throats ripped out by dogs and slashed by knives, while a few stragglers meet their maker from good old fashioned gun shots. As action, it’s niftily executed, the suspense neatly built, and the shocks expectedly surprising. As a bonus, Saulnier and his crew establish the layout of the building clearly so it makes sense where characters are in relation to each other, and where the blind spots are.
However, proficient as it is, there’s not much here that genre fans won’t have seen a hundred times, apart from the fact that instead of having dumb teenagers getting sliced and diced by hillbillies or supernatural serial killers, here it’s slightly cooler punk rockers up against thugs in Doc Martens. (Sidenote: British viewers passingly familiar with the sartorial codes may be confused that here the worst skins are the ones with red laces in their boots, whereas in the UK this is usually a sign that the wearer is a member of that oxymoronic-sounding tribe, left-wing skinheads.)
At least the soundtrack, featuring a plethora of hardcore ditties by the likes of Napalm Death, Poison Idea and Slayer will tickle the fancy of a certain fan base, as will a wry running joke that has the punks naming their desert island artists. At first they nominate only the most obscure, street-cred generating acts, but once the mayhem starts and they come under pressure, they confess that the ones they really love are people like Madonna and Prince.
Production companies: A Broad Green Pictures, filmscience production
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Macon Blair, David W. Thompson, Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein
Director/screenwriter: Jeremy Saulnier:
Producers: Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Victor Moyers
Executive producers: Gabriel Hammond, Daniel Hammond, Vincent Savino
Director of photography: Sean Porter
Editor: Julia Bloch
Production designer: Ryan Warren Smith
Costume designer: Amanda Needham
Composer: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: Westend Films
No rating, 94 minutes