Albeit a very different style, DC-Area native writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” competes with “The Invitation” as the best horror/thriller of the year. While the latter is a subtle, clever twist on the “Ten Little Indians” premise, Saulnier’s follow-up to “Blue Ruin” is more like a grenade going off in an over-crowded sub-genre. It’s tense, smart, and suspenseful enough to avoid much comparison to others of its kind, realistic and unforgiving enough to forge a category of its own.
A struggling punk(ish) band on a shoestring budget, so broke that they resort to siphoning gas for their van, land a gig in a small town dive where they net roughly six bucks each. To make amends, their mohawked host sets them up with a more promising venture that sends them deep in the backwoods of Oregon. What’s the catch? Bigfoot? If only.
It’s a Neo-Nazi bar. And it’s not a party, it’s a movement, proclaims owner/leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart) to his minions with a convincing tone of urgency. Darcy has been called upon because a murder has taken place back stage at his cueball filled venue—a scene that our so-so musicians unwittingly wander into. Band member Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) and ambiguously intentioned Amber (Imogen Poots), who is witness to her friend’s murder, take the lead roles; skinheads and Rottweilers abound, as Darcy’s henchman plot to stage a mass murder and pin it on their visitors. You’d think the doorman/stage manager (“Blue Ruin” star Macon Blair) would have vetted these folks to make sure they were properly racist, or at least had a few cross-burnings on their résumé. But it’s clear when the group cranks out a cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” that they don’t quite fit the mold. Slayer’s “War Ensemble” is a nice touch playing in the background.
Immediately trapped in the green room with an oversized bouncer who they hold hostage, the band, dwindling in numbers, must get resourceful, and quick. The first phase plays like a hostage negotiation; these kids are a few steps above your typical horror victims in the IQ department. Nevertheless, shit goes south.
Macon Blair is a standout as a kind of liaison and Darcy’s right-hand guy. Mark Webber’s brief appearance as the badest-ass skinhead takes a swift turn, followed by a quicker twist… and twist after twist, each resulting with a maimed body. Disturbing in premise, freaky in scenario, and ultra-gory in general, Saulnier’s foray into bloodier, gutsier stuff doesn’t lose that genuine, haphazard feel of his previous work. And it gels perfectly. Desperation, brains, luck…a boxcutter. And duct tape, if you need to keep your arm from falling off. And a perfect ending. Retribution is sloppy.
Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner play the rest of the band mates, and hats off to casting director Avy Kaufman. Saulnier has crafted a great story, one that plays out with such refreshing and satisfying unpredictability, and though very graphic at times never appears gratuitous. Even the villains, as immediately and easily hatable as they are (considering their affiliation), have some texture. Patrick Stewart is just plain unexpected—not an inflated kingpin, just a bad guy trying to solve a problem like bad guys do. Send in the dogs, the guns, the machetes. “Green Room” is a survival thriller that continues Saulnier’s climb in my ranks of favorite filmmakers.