Alia Shawkat Anton Yelchin

GREEN ROOM Review: Nazi Punks [Expletive Deleted] Off

Monday, April 25, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Green Room

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Patrick Stewart, Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Macon Blair
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in limited release now

Green Room is a movie that features some of the most revolting acts known to humanity. And yet little of those things are explicitly shown in real time. Instead, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest goes to great lengths to take a Jaws-style “less is more” approach to its horror. The goal is to allow audiences to fill in the gruesome blanks of the horrors that greet a Washington DC punk band whose only way out of their Pacific Northwest tour is to play a gig at a neo-Nazi bar so they can fill up their tour van’s gas tank and get out of Dodge. More often than not, the sickening crunches and wet, squishy sounds that occur just out of the camera’s view create an effect of extreme discomfort in those watching it -- brief glimpses of the aftermath of such violence paints a graphic picture. Certain scenes, however, take the obfuscation too far, weakening the visceral power of these images.

Saulnier wisely chooses to begin Green Room as a portrait of struggling young people, hopeful about their chances of “making it” in an artistic endeavor but growing increasingly skeptical about their odds. The band’s true-believer attitudes about the purity of the punk rock lifestyle come off as a bit of a posturing put-on, as if they are deluding themselves. A running joke throughout the film involves the bandmates debating who their “desert island” bands would be, with almost every member choosing something decidedly un-punk.

But their life choices have consequences that they aren’t always comfortable with, a theme that gets mirrored by members of the neo-Nazi gang later in the film. When bassist Pat (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) and guitarist Sam (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) sneak around a bowling alley to siphon bowlers’ gas tanks because they’re too poor to pay for their own fuel, their slumped shoulders and darting eyes show a pair of people upset about not compromising enough in life. They don’t want to be thieves, but they put themselves in this position. It does not appear likely they would make the same decision again if given the chance.

Their ability to choose a new life for themselves becomes threatened when their band agrees in desperation to play a gig at a place none of them feels comfortable performing in, a neo-Nazi enclave hidden deep in the Oregon woods. Guarded by fences and a handful of mean-looking (and obviously racist) bruisers, the band looks to make it through the gig as quickly as possible. At least the money is better than the Mexican restaurant lunch-hour gig that netted each member a little more than $6. They even boost their own sense of right and wrong by taking a few snotty swipes at the Confederate-flag-decorated skinheads at the show by covering a rather abrasive (and not safe for work) Dead Kennedys song at the start of their set.

Their path out of the gig becomes impeded when Pat goes to retrieve a cell phone from the green room of the film’s title. He sees something he shouldn’t and the movie is off to the races. At this point, Green Room shifts gears into out-and-out horror, as the band becomes locked in the room while the skinheads around them plot a way to get out of the situation without any witnesses. As terrifying as this situation is for the band, Saulnier shows how frayed the nerves of the neo-Nazis are, as well. Macon Blair, who starred in Saulnier’s 2014 breakout Blue Ruin, returns here as a big-eyed club manager who would seem almost sweet if he wasn’t part of a murderous white supremacist gang. The panic spreads across his face when he realizes he cannot wrangle the aggressive low-level acolytes of his boss, bar owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart).

As Darcy, Stewart uses his “calm, wise leader” persona developed on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the X-Men films to show the worst impulses of humanity. His cold calculation oozes evil. He goes through a mental checklist of all the things he needs to do -- disposing of bodies, setting up a fake crime scene, staging a diversion for the police, so on and so forth -- with methodical maliciousness. This isn’t his first go-round with making crimes disappear. His malignant personality is front and center, but he plays on the band’s (naive?) hope for a peaceful resolution by convincing them to hand over their only means of protecting themselves.

The transfer of a loaded handgun from the band to the neo-Nazis on the other side of the door is perhaps the most masterful piece of suspense filmmaking in Saulnier’s already impressive young career. It ends poorly, gruesomely so, but it’s done mostly off camera. The facial and vocal performances pair with sickly fluorescent lighting to sell the moment in a heart- and gut-wrenching way that definitively declares this situation off the rails for the protagonists. The stakes go through the roof and it becomes obvious a happy ending is borderline impossible.

But within the misery lies Green Room’s biggest strength. It features a wry humor to it, implicitly wrapped in the old adage, “When people make plans, God laughs.” It works that way for both the protagonists and the villains. Their plans, even the most calculated and thought out, can be destroyed by unforeseen circumstances. And it’s funny when hubris gets punished, even if it’s with people you come to like.

That’s the issue with the band as they make their first desperate attempt at escape. Unfortunately this sequence is not as cinematically effective as the gun transfer scene. The lights drop out and the film devolves into a color scheme of earthy green and the deepest black shadows. Vicious things happen, but the visual impact is dulled by the shadows. When you can’t see the desperation in victims’ faces, it removes an audience from the experience. Of course, nobody wants to see such every disgusting detail. But Saulnier drops the lesson he learned in the gun transfer scene by putting things in silhouette, visually hinting at violence rather than showing how the victims react in the moment.

Similarly, Green Room drops its most humorous and effective thematic through-line in its climax, which is set up as an ode to chaos. Our heroes discuss a strategy of reckless abandon to take the neo-Nazis by surprise. However, everything that follows the “pep talk” sequence comes off as inordinately planned and mapped out. Multifaceted traps are laid and these amateurs display a calmness that would be out of place with military veterans, let alone traumatized young people. It’s a thrilling set piece that opens the claustrophobic story, but it reads as an abandonment of the film’s larger mission. It leaves Green Room as an intermittently excellent part of modern thriller filmmaking with few (but important) formal and conceptual roadblocks to Jeremy Saulnier reaching greatness on this effort.

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