Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is an impeccably crafted cinematic torture machine — in the best possible way. The premise will make some cringe, while making others giddy: A punk band, trapped in a club in the middle of nowhere, have to fight off a bunch of murderous skinheads to get out. Count me among the initially skeptical. The idea sounds less like a grindhouse classic than a juvenile music video. But Saulnier distinguishes the grungy, schlocky concept with artistry and expertise.
The band is called the Ain’t Rights, and when we meet them they’re struggling through a pathetic tour of the Pacific Northwest, stealing gas for their van out of parked cars at skating rinks. They may play hardcore, but they seem more emo than anything else. Or maybe that’s just their general malaise speaking: These guys don’t even seem to like one another, and we sense that the band might be on its last legs. A canceled club gig and a desperate need for cash prompt them to play a backwoods venue attended and run by neo-Nazis. “They’re not, like, burning crosses, right?” one band member asks. “Just don’t talk politics,” is the response. Still, they can’t help but sing Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to the angry crowd.
Things truly get tense, however, after one member of the group walks in on a grisly murder scene backstage. Suddenly, The Ain’t Rights are witnesses, and the whole club has turned against them. The band barricades itself in the green room, desperately trying to figure a way out of the situation. Enter the club’s owner, Darcy (Patrick Stewart), an older skinhead whose efficient, downright reasonable demeanor somehow makes him that much creepier; you get the sense that he’s had to deal with stuff like this before. “You were held here for your safety,” he says, trying to negotiate with our besieged heroes. “We want you out. We don’t want you harmed.” He’s so calm, they almost believe it.
That tension between unhinged panic and taking-care-of-business cool gives Green Room its unique kick. The terrifyingly sensible Darcy seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the law; at one point, he orchestrates a stabbing but reassures one of the perpetrators that the knife he’s wielding is “too short for felony possession.” And even as the situation spins out of control, we see the workings of the club, right down to skinheads figuring out the petty-cash situation. (“I need 600 cash.” “You just signed out 350.” “Somebody’s dead.” “Still gotta keep the books.”) It’s the care given to details like these that make it clear we’re in confident hands.
Anyway, the blood flows, the limbs fly, the bodies drop, and our hardcore poser heroes have to learn to get in touch with their inner berserkers. So does the movie, though its madness is a controlled one. Can a film be both graphic and subtle? Saulnier, who also made the moody, intense revenge drama Blue Ruin, seems determined to pull it off. When it comes to violence — a head blown off, a throat sliced open, a dog mauling — he isn’t content just to suggest. No, he most definitely shows, but just enough to freak us out, before pulling back. And his great eye finds elegance in just about any situation, no matter how grisly.
As a result, we watch Green Room with the sense that anything can and will happen — that no character or body part is safe, that no horrific plot development is off the table — but with the reassurance that the filmmaker will never abandon us. This is the control of a master manipulator, and it’s riveting.