“But it's already played.”
There is no greater currency in the press at a film festival than the word “premiere.” And that word can mean a great many things. There are regional premieres. North American premieres. US premieres. Or, in the best case scenario, world premieres. If you've got a movie no one's seen, and it's by someone who has a track record, that is bait on a hook. And sometimes, it seems like it's important to see something first.
Take Michael Moore, for example. He's got a track record. There are plenty of things of Michael Moore's that I like. I think you will find few more ardent “TV Nation” fans than me. But he's been away from the game for a while. And tonight, he had a film premiere at the Princess Of Wales theater. I could have gone to that. I will see it tomorrow. There were plenty of people who were there, who were super-curious about the film. It was one of the main things they're covering, and they wanted to see it first for any number of reasons. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm trying not to read anyone else's reaction to it yet. But for me, there was only one place that was essential on Thursday night in Toronto. The Ryerson Theater. Midnight.
And, yes, tonight's movie has already played. It played at Cannes. But I wasn't at Cannes. And this movie has been on my radar from the moment it was announced, and when I heard it was opening Midnight Madness this year, I knew I had to see it here. Because Colin Geddes does not program his opening night lightly. He does not pick his opening shot all willy-nilly. This is why I come to Toronto year after year. There are so many different versions of this festival, and certainly I've seen my fair share of world premieres at various festivals in various places. I sat in the Debussy for “Holy Motors,” holding my breath the entire time, and I sat there for “Wild Tales,” laughing my face off. I loved those crowds. I was also in the room at Cannes for “The Tree Of Life,” but I'm not sure I can even really stand behind my reportage about the film. I was suffering by that point. I had heatstroke (really) and I was staying way out of town (really) and I was basically limping through the end of the festival by that point. It made a difference. Absolutely it did.
This isn't supposed to be a grind. This isn't supposed to be a workload. The people who program Toronto (and the people who program all of my favorite festivals, who are all part of this giant amorphous community of genuinely film-mad beautiful lunatics who have somehow convinced the world to throw a year-round movie orgy that never ends. You can jump on and you can jump off, but the festival whirlwind is blowing whether you're on it or not. There are festivals I've attended before that I have stopped attending. There are festivals I've attended before that no longer exist. There are festivals I've never attended. I want to be a judge at the Tokyo Film Festival sometime. I want to go to Sittges. I want to put Montreal back on my schedule, because the time of year where Fantasia occurs is the most amazing time, packed with activity and so much fun in a city that is alive and insane.
Then there's Austin. Austin is my home away from home. Austin's where I'm me, 100%. I can't live there yet, but it's Austin. It's amazing. Fantastic Fest. SXSXS. The Austin Film Festival. The TV thingumabob. The script part of the other thing. BNAT. Constant Alamo programming. The Austin Film Society. It's unreal. They've almost got their own perfect tornado programmed in the middle of all the other whirlwinds. Things open in one place and then play again because people should see them. Because you should see them with other people. “Green Room” is a movie you should see, and it is a movie you should see with as many people who have not seen it yet as you possibly can. And you should buckle up, because Jeremy Saulnier just turned his game up to a whole different level, and he is a goddamn madman, one of us, through and through and through.
And, yes, part of what was glorious about tonight…
… and make no mistake. It was GLORIOUS…
… was the evening itself. Colin Geddes is the evil genius who throws this particular opening night party every year. And as I said, when he is kicking off the first of the Ten, he is in supreme showman mode. He is good at it. He knows this audience comes ready for anything. They want to feel. They want Colin to mess with them or to delight them or to move them somehow, and he came through in spades this evening. He opened with a short film that I will write about separately, a crazy bit of remix genius called “The Chickening.” And then he dropped “Green Room” on us like a bomb, cackling as he did so.
Here's how good Jeremy Saulnier's new film is: it fooled me. I've seen so many of these films that I'm used to the way they work. And because of the way he starts his film, he pulled me in, and I forgot what I was watching. I got caught up in the story of a band on the road, the feeling of what it's like when you're young and full of this kind of artistic energy, and I forgot that I was watching a certain kind of movie. I bought into the story of the Ain't Rights, a punk band made up of Sam (Alia Shawkat), Pat (Anton Yelchin), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Reece (Joe Cole), and I love the way Saulnier captures all the various tiny details of life on the road for this band, and the way he depicts the sort of raw edges of the punk scene.
Growing up, I was lucky in that my punk phase coincided with a pretty great moment in punk in Tampa. There were bands coming through there all the time and enough local bands that it felt like a genuine scene. I saw bands like Black Flag, the Impotent Sea Snakes, the Circle Jerks, and the Dead Kennedys, and they were just as likely to play an all-ages club inside the forbidden-to-suburban-white-kids Ybor City as they were an armory on the far edge of town. There were guys like me who were at the shows, and plenty of the scary white skinhead dudes as well. There's a lot of talk at the start of the film about authenticity and the delicate nature of whatever is that happens between a band and an audience when they're playing, and just as I was settling into that movie, the band takes a gig at a place in the middle of nowhere, and they're warned that it's a pretty seriously white power crowd, and even so, when they take the stage, they can't help but flip that middle finger, covering a certain Dead Kennedys tune that got me to laugh out loud just as I realized what a terrible idea it was to make that particular joke, and that feeling of dread started creeping in…
… and when things go south, they go south so fast, and so hard, and in such spectacular expertly calibrated fashion that it's kind of exhilarating. They fooled by by lulling me into a sense of security, and then they start hurting you almost immediately. Saulnier is monstrously talented when it comes to staging gut-wrenching tension, and while I think “Blue Ruin” was a really solid small film, “Green Room” works on a whole different level. There's something tough about making a movie where characters keep making bad decisions, because you have to maintain a sense of audience empathy, and if those decisions are too bad, too unbelievable, then the audience turns on the characters. Here, there's a sense of momentum to things, so by the time the characters realize how bad things are, there was no way to avoid stepping in it.
Imogen Poots plays a local girl who ends up trapped with the band, and what starts as a very quiet performance sly ramps up into the most ferocious thing she's ever done. Anton Yelchin is as good as he's ever been as the band member whose one “joke” costs he and his friends everything, only gradually stepping up as the stakes become clear. Eric Edelstein, one of those guys you've seen in about a million different films and TV shows, radiates a great sense of menace as a bouncer at the club. And Macon Blair, who was the star of “Blue Ruin” and who grew up with Saulnier, is absolutely tremendous as the club manager, the one who has to figure out how to get a hold of a situation that threatens to erupt into pure mayhem. He's the one who finally has to call in Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the owner of the club and the man in charge of this movement. These are his young hearts and minds to mold, and when it's time for absolute loyalty, he's the one who snaps his fingers and points the weapons these young men have become.
Prosthetic Rennaisance is credited with the prosthetic make-up work in the film, and I made special note of that because this is a film where you could make the case for the make-up as a co-star. There are some startling make-up gags, and some of it is so sudden and so insane that you almost digest it as a memory, burnt onto the back of your eyelids, more than something you're looking at for a long lingering moment. Here's another place where Saulnier's skill stands revealed, because anyone can shoot violence in a film, but to shoot it well and create a real impact each and every time… that takes skill.
Just on a technical level, the film represents such a big jump forward for Saulnier that you should expect the studios to immediately start arguing over which giant soulless franchise should occupy his time in the near-future. For me, the revelation here is just how good he is with action geography. He takes this very tight space and manages to wring every single good idea out of it. As with violence, anyone can throw people into a room and have them collide, but figuring out how to sustain and even accelerate tension over the course of two hours in close quarters like this… it's a skill set that can't be taught. Either you speak the language or you don't, and Saulnier does. Fluently.
The real question is what he wants to do next as an artist. Is this who he is. Is he “just” a technical wizard? Is this “just” exploitation? There is a great dark wicked sense of humor here, and he pulls this off without falling back on some of the easiest weakest crutches that people fall prey to so often. Please take note, genre hacks, that there isn't even the hint of the whisper of the chance of a rape in the film, and it's plenty intense without it, and the women in the film are still strong and engaged and part of the action. It can be done. You just have to actually be good at your job.
Overall, I couldn't have asked for a better way to kick off the festival, and walking back through the city to where I'm staying last night, I was jumpy, nervous, aware of the people around me. Saulnier got under my skin, and I was delighted by just how effective he was. “Green Room” is something special, and I'm excited to see what A24 does with the film when they roll it out in general release.
“Green Room” will be seen next at Fantastic Fest in Austin. Brace yourselves, guys, cause the Red Laces are coming to bootstomp you in the best possible way.