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On its face, Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film, Green Room, sounds quite familiar. Heroes trapped in a locked room, surrounded by an invading horde, must fight for their lives to survive the onslaught. This trope can be seen in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter’s highly-underrated Assault On Precinct 13. The connective tissue between these films is the diverse and crafty nature of the heroes, a mostly faceless but impossibly numerous group of invaders and a casual violence resulting in a high body count on both sides of the locked door. What separates Green Room from its progenitors is that none of the violence on-screen is casual, no one in the film is faceless and, once the inevitable nightmare kicks-off, the pace and intensity make Green Room one of the most interesting and engaging American films of the last several years.
Green Room begins with The Ain’t Rights, a touring DIY punk band from Virginia, stranded in an Oregonian corn field. The band literally siphons gas in order to get from gig-to-gig. Through a series of mix-ups and miscommunications one of their scheduled shows is cancelled and the band is forced to play a show at a backwoods skinhead club. A palpable tension immediately comes into existence between The Ain’t Rights, sporting bumper stickers and shirts promoting anti-fascist bands like Fugazi and Dead Kennedys, and the rowdy crowd of bigots they are performing for. Things go from bad to worse when one of The Ain’t Rights witnesses a crime and suddenly the band finds themselves locked in a room surrounded by violent neo-Nazis. To say that the situation quickly escalates into the worst possible scenario is an understatement. Green Room is beyond intense and graphically violent but it’s also an undeniably compelling film from one of the most interesting young directors working today.
Green Room is only Jeremy Saulnier’s third film. His last film, 2013’s Blue Ruin, was a critical darling on the festival circuit. Similar to Green Room, Blue Ruin explores the ways in which violence begets violence and the futility of revenge. Despite his violent subject matter, Saulnier transcends being labeled a purveyor of exploitation cinema by surrounding his violence with cinematic beauty, fully-formed characters and a fearless intensity. Stylistically, the titular colors of both films serve as the base for the tonal palette the director uses throughout both films; the chilly blue of Blue Ruin and sickly green of Green Room add to the intensity of what is happening on-screen without becoming a distracting gimmick. The cinematography of both films is gorgeous and, in Green Room, a misty morning bike ride and slow motion punk performance force viewers to acknowledge Saulnier is doing something beyond mere exploitation.
Another common denominator between Saulnier’s films is actor Macon Blair who stars in Blue Ruin and plays a seedy neo-Nazi bar manager in Green Room. Though Blue Ruin relied heavily on Blair’s considerable acting talents, Green Room’s cast is fleshed out with an ensemble of talented actors including Anton Yelchin (Star Trek), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and the venerable Sir Patrick Stewart as the film’s villain, the charismatic fascist leader, Darcy. There is even an Iowa connection in the Green Room cast, with actor Samuel Summer, a Cedar Rapids native and University of Iowa alum, playing Jonathan, one of the young skinheads.
The villains in Green Room are much more than just savage stereotypes to be mowed-down by the film’s heroes. The skinheads in the film have names and identities and don’t just charge casually into the fray — they hesitate and choke and often seem reluctant to commit the violence they’ve been tasked with. And though The Ain’t Rights are clearly the heroes of Green Room, they are not superheroes, are not impervious to violence and they make costly mistakes. With that said, Green Room is a film that lends itself to scrutiny — the ways the characters react to the situation is logical. For example, at one point the band calls the police, the police arrive and Darcy’s crew in a logical fashion are able to contain the situation. In another moment the band’s DIY mentality is put to good use with probably the most original and most life-saving use for duct tape in cinematic history. Ultimately what makes Green Room such an incredible, jaw-dropping film is that it is all so human and all so terrible.