“Green Room” is the kind of thriller that forgets it's moving parts in exchange for the intensity brought from them, like that of a punk rock heavy thriller neglecting that sub-genre of music. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Rain”) provides a grizzly take on a basic eighties suspense film in which he fabricates a story that is meant to build to some sort of crescendo cohesively, yet we’re left waiting at the end of the story with an absence of finality.
The film constructs itself accurately though, centering around a young punk band named the “Ain’t Rights” who find themselves in a euphoric journey of sorts. They’re poor, siphoning gas from unattended vehicles at a skating rink at one point, and they’re indie to the core, refusing to sell their music digitally. Pat (Anton Yelchin), the lead fledgling rocker of the group, describes it at one point as music is meant to be experienced live, that somehow it loses “texture” when you listen to a studio-produced recording.
It’s that punkish love for music that can pull you into Saulnier’s grasp, writing a screenplay that provides superficial character traits that are carried primarily by the presentation of these characters. Each of them has their own thing, Sam (Alia Shawkat) is a non-violent soul, someone who acts like the cool mom of the group. Tiger (Callum Turner) is the goofy singer, the one the group laughs with as much as they laugh at, and Reece (Joe Cole) is the badass, a former jiu-jitsu tournament winner who puts his skills to use when the shit hits the fan.
Why do things go wrong? Well, after the band gets screwed out of a gig by a middle guy of sorts, Tad (David W. Thompson), he makes up for it by hooking them up with a concert at a bar his brother works at, an alt-right bar filled with neo-nazis. The inherent racism to be expected from a group like this rarely gets depicted though, rather treated with a gang-like mentality of a movement that also happens to be selling heroin on the side.
It’s a refined machine of a business operation in which there is a manager, an executive manager, and the head honcho of things in Darcy (Patrick Stewart), a skinhead through and through, one that provides the only racial slur in the film. The band is asked to play, and as expected, they revolt against this crowd of hatred. Performing a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F*ck Off” as the opener, a song that gets beer bottles slung at them, as expected. The band then switches to their original playlist, gaining the crowd's approval for speaking their mind so freely, luckily the group is mostly white as well so that probably helped.
In the midst of their session, Jeremy Saulnier and cinematographer Sean Porter provide a slowly motioned glimpse at the mayhem that can be birthed from this music, the mosh pit, the screaming, the headbanging. Painting this beautiful portrait of these musician’s passion for their expression, losing themselves in the moment, that moment that Pat (Anton Yelchin) vividly described just a few scenes before.
After their set, they find their equipment dragged out of the “Green Room” they were staying in, asked to leave after getting paid. They’re on their way out when Sam (Alia Shawkat) remembers her phone was left charging in the room. Pat (Anton Yelchin) being the indecisive leader he is, decides to grab it for her, stumbling onto a group of true believers who just killed a girl by stabbing her in the head with a knife. Panic ensues, and the band finds themselves locked inside of this room with a group of criminally invested neo-nazis on the other side who are attempting to clean up a mess.
Jeremy Saulnier treats these characters both logically and ignorantly, as they teeter between doing the smart thing like Reece (Joe Cole) trapping the armed guard in the room with an armbar, getting the gun away from him, and doing the dumb thing like giving the gun back to the Nazis with Pat (Anton Yelchin) sticking his arm out into the lion's den, as if he’s willing to be attacked. Saulnier describes these things as characters making poor decisions and paying for them, and in some ways that’s understandable, but it seems more like a sacrifice of reasoning for brutality, and the film does provide some sadistic depictions of violence.
It’s obscene and naturally believable in a way that makes your skin crawl. The knife wounds involve the skin swelling and the blood pouring at an authentic rate, there's a moment in which a box cutter is used to slice open someone, and it's done so smoothly, like slicing a pizza in half. It can be scarring to watch this film, treating the violence with a flair for manifesting distress in the theater, something Saulnier achieves in creating in leaps and bounds.
The visuality of the film assists in creating that atmosphere as well, with cinematography from Sean Porter (“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”), “Green Room” maintains a scoundrel and grizzly visual language. It’s sleek, darkly lit, and viciously produced inside of a grungy bar that has racial slurs painted on the walls as graffiti becomes the design of the building as much as the architecture of the bar itself.
The film uses that visceral optical style like a game of peekaboo, with brief moments of violence that occur like a game of tag in which our group runs out of the room, ready to fight, only to be outgunned and return to the room with fewer people than they left with. It feels as if we are building to a savage finale between a calmly depicted villain that Stewart portrays as this relaxed general and our subversive hero that Anton slowly provides more energy to the further the fight goes on, a finale that never arrives. “Green Room” stumbles in that area, while also struggling to manifest a message of sorts with this punk music that resides in the background, more of a quick glimpse at a different taste in music that most of us are unaccustomed too.
It’s like watching a film that forgets that it has a main ingredient working within its recipe, Saulnier did something similar with “Blue Rain,” a seemingly forgetful chef. Nonetheless, it’s Saulnier’s depiction of the violence and direction of the performances that lift this film past its trivial structure. It becomes far better than it should be, a grim and white-knuckling ride that keeps you on edge. It’s hard to root for anyone in the midst of this fight though since our main characters are transparently crafted. Luckily the villains are Nazis, so it would be weird if you were cheering for them, a subtle strategic advantage put forth by Saulnier, his wisest move as a writer.