As effective as Blue Ruin was as a thriller, it was difficult to see much in Jeremy Saulnier’s debut feature beyond skillful mechanics and the standard “eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind” view of vengeance, with its ordinary main character’s incompetence at meting out violence offering (at best) a marginal sense of novelty to the proceedings. So the high-concept premise of his follow-up, Green Room, already sounds like an improvement based on its wild extravagance alone: a life-threatening encounter between a punk-rock band and a group of neo-Nazis.
Even more refreshing in Green Room is Saulnier’s lack of interest in the kind of moralizing that made Blue Ruin ultimately seem conventional. Instead, Saulnier simply presents us this nutty scenario without feeling the need to lard it up with anything as cumbersome as topical commentary or moral ambiguity. He proceeds to wring as much tension and suspense from its pulpy retro plot as possible, adding a few entertaining grace notes along the way.
Most of those grace notes can be seen in the performances. Much of Blue Ruin’s slim thematic intrigue lay in the spectacle of seeing a tentative, ultra-logical pipsqueak like Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) try to enact violent retribution with increasingly disastrous results. In the ensemble-based Green Room, Saulnier revels in the contrasts of personalities and styles: band bassist Pat’s (Anton Yelchin) Bill Paxton-like desperation, for instance, set alongside the weary, near-drugged-out deadpan of Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of the woman whose murder sets off the film’s violent chain of events; or the imperial calm of Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the ruthless leader of the band of white supremacists who attempt to kill Pat, Amber and the rest. It’d be a stretch to call these characters three-dimensional, but nevertheless, under Saulnier’s writing and direction, they all manage to stand out just enough as individuals for us to become emotionally involved in their fates.
Saulnier supports these characters and plot turns with filmmaking that is remarkable for its economy and patience. D.P. Sean Porter gets a lot of mileage out of the cramped quarters and grimy lighting of the bar, lending its wide (2.35:1) frames an appropriately nightmarish feel amidst many suspenseful set pieces. In the action scenes, Saulnier isn’t into the handheld shaky-cam style of his bigger-budget contemporaries; Green Room is the type of film willing to draw out conversations for the sake of maximizing tension—a maneuver that, coupled with Saulnier’s penchant for dipping into the style and approach of decades-old thrillers, faintly suggests Tarantino, except with a firmer hold on grim reality.
In those ways, the lean, mean Green Room stands as one of the best B-movie genre exercises in many years—whether it adds up to anything more than just a brilliantly done rollercoaster ride is more debatable. For all its visceral pleasures, this is the kind of film that is more noteworthy for what it isn’t—a preachy moralizing tract about the evils of racism—than for anything it actually is. What are we to make, for instance, of Amber’s character: a white supremacist who turns against her people seemingly out of anger over her dead friend, but who still ends the film holding the same appalling views as before? Perhaps the film means to suggest that unjustified murder is enough to unite people of different belief systems? Who knows: Saulnier appears to be too busy amping up the thrills to care all that much about subtext of any sort. Green Room is the kind of thunderously slight movie that impresses in the moment but is bound to dissolve the more you think about it, its shallowness as deafening as the feedback that scares the attack dogs away in the film.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner
Release Date: April 15, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.