Director Jeremy Saulnier went from a standing start to the toast of Cannes with his break-through second film, Blue Ruin. It brought a human, contemplative to the revenge thriller genre, with Saulnier’s creative partner Macon Blair playing an unassuming man impelled to commit dreadful acts of violence.
Green Room sees Saulnier dive head-first into horror territory, yet his second feature contains much of the creative fingerprints of his debut: there’s the same grubby, faded texture to this nightmare scenario about a punk band unwittingly drawn into the middle of a tense stand-off at a club frequented by far-right skinheads. There’s also a fine thread of dry wit running through the entire movie; a quiet cynicism that seeps from the dialogue into the story itself: Green Room’s about strangers thrown into a nightmare situation, sure, but they don’t necessarily bond through their predicament or somehow become better people because of it. All they really learn is that violence is ugly and futile.
Anton Yelchin plays the quiet, nervy bass-player of the punk band Ain’t Nice, whose number also includes plucky guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), impulsive lead-singer Tiger (Callum Turner) and street-tough drummer Reece (Joe Cole). Largely penniless and often forced to resort to siphoning fuel from other cars to keep their beige van on the road, the band drifts from place to place, making a pittance from bashing out their anthems of anarchy and rebellion in clubs and bars.
When one gig falls through, the band lands another at a less salubrious venue: a remote club full of neo-Nazis in thrall to the softly-spoken, cold-blooded D’Arcy (Patrick Stewart, of all people). The band doesn’t particularly want to play to a bunch of skinheads, but against their better judgement, and desperate to earn enough money to buy the next tank of fuel, the band agree to take the stage.
Saulnier, who also writes the screenplay, cleverly keeps us guessing as to what’s going to happen next; it’s no spoiler to say that things go horribly, murderously awry, yet the flashpoint for the violence we can just sense on the horizon comes in an abrupt and unexpected form that I won’t spoil here. It’s sufficient to say that Yelchin’s band wind up locked in the back-stage room of the movie’s title, with no obvious signs of escape and Patrick Stewart’s army of thugs lurking outside the door.
Green Room has the unseemly, 70s exploitation air of John Carpenter’s classic siege thriller Assault On Precinct 13 at times, yet it also recalls – no doubt unintentionally – the 80s horror comedy, Vamp. That film saw a bunch of college students trapped in a club with bloodthirsty vampires; Green Room replaces the vampires with burly men in bomber jackets. And make no mistake, the violence in Green Room is intimate and wince-inducingly graphic – the movie’s premise may be outlandish, but Saulnier is careful to give the bloodshed a disquieting sense of realism.
Like Blue Ruin, Green Room is a lean, fast-moving film that trims everything down to the bare essentials; the characters are sketches rather than fully-realised portraits, but we’re given just enough to leave us caring about their fate. The point of the film, I guess, is that a group of 20-somethings who sing about anarchy and nihilism suddenly come face to face with the real thing: the villains of the piece really are nihilistic – to the point where they’re willing to commit murder.
There’s a great, almost incidental film where Yelchin comes face-to-face with one of his eventual tormentors, and it’s a really effective scene: we see the fear in Patrick’s eyes at the depths of this man’s lack of human compassion. It’s a moment that might lead us to think that this monster of a man is one of the film’s largest threats; instead, that job falls to Patrick Stewart’s coldly imperious club proprietor. Stewart talks with a mumbling drawl; I can’t quite decide whether he’s the right casting to play a leader of a far-right group, but there’s an edge to his performance that makes it interesting. He doesn’t really nail the US accent – I’m not convinced he’s always even trying – but his commanding presence is felt in every scene he’s in.
Of the supporting cast, Macon Blair registers as a sad-eyed member of D’Arcy’s number, while Imogen Poots is great value as the enigmatic Amber, who abruptly becomes a member of Patrick’s group of survivors and proves to be endlessly resourceful in a tight spot. Admittedly, Green Room loses the intimacy and sense of dread as the final third dawns, but this is another well-made film from Jeremy Saulnier. Even bigger and better things surely beckon.
Green Room is out in UK cinemas on the 13th May.