Fictional punk band The Ain’t Rights cover the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F*ck Off” early in Green Room, which could easily have been called “Nazi Punks F*ck Off: The Movie.” It’s not often that I feel comfortable describing a film as “gnarly,” but Green Room certainly fits the bill, the kind of movie you watch and then look around the room wide eyed, hoping for a moment of mutual recognition from someone else who just got wrecked by the same wave. If Blue Ruin (writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s cult hit from 2013) was a slap across the face, Green Room is a rusty screwdriver to the kidney. It’s not a nice movie, and that’s part of the charm.
Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat (Maeby Funke), and crew play in a noisy punk band siphoning their way across Oregon in a sh*tty van, playing back rooms and bowling alleys along the way (that there’s a punk scene full of 20-somethings in 2015 feels like an anachronism, but I’ll allow it). The first scene is them waking up in the middle of a cornfield where they’ve crash landed after the driver fell asleep at the wheel (are there corn fields in Oregon? Again, I’ll allow it).
Like Blue Ruin, Green Room feints at an understated, sorta predictable festival indie movie (quirky band struggles to make good on the cusp of adulthood! it’s this year’s Frank!), just long enough to distract you from the hard right it’s about to land across your jaw — a balls-to-the-wall, plot-driven action film that treats navel gazing like leprosy.
Anyway, the Ain’t Rights’ latest gig falls through and the promoter, a college kid with a radio station and a zine (again, anachronistic, but accurate) offers to make it up to them by sending them off to a paying gig with his cousin out in the boonies. “It’s mostly braces and boots out there,” he warns them. “The crowd… leans a little right.”
And that’s how the four of them eventually find themselves barricaded in the titular green room of a grimey skinhead bar while some screwed up sh*t goes down outside.
It’s rare you see a movie about punk that actually feels punk. But when Saulnier talked to the crowd afterward about wanting to capitalize on becoming festival darlings after Blue Ruin, and get his next movie made “before they knew who we really were,” it’s easy to see what he meant.
Film festival movies are usually nice, eager to be intellectualized by guys in slouch beanies. Green Room isn’t all practiced rebellion, walking around flipping the bird to the camera like Johnny Cash (or Kid Rock, or Avril Lavigne…), but you do get the sense that Saulnier likes to revel in the crude. Not necessarily to gross us out, but because that’s just what he likes. Saulnier trusts us to “get” it, to understand that wanting to eschew introspection in favor of more visceral thrills doesn’t make you stupid.
Which I suppose is another way of saying that Green Room is graphically violent. The beauty of it is that it’s graphically violent without that being its end-all reason for existing. Green Room isn’t about arterial spurts and squibs, but that doesn’t stop Saulnier and company from taking the time to make sure they look just right. Practical effects abound, and there’s a shot of someone getting their face blown apart with a shotgun that must’ve taken days to shoot, even if it’s only onscreen for a split second. Saulnier has a gearhead’s dedication to mutilated soft tissue.
Green Room is essentially an action thriller with a slasher flick’s sense of gleeful gore. But… realistic gore. The violence doesn’t feel unearned, and it being so brutally graphic is probably more honest anyway. Violence should be sort of gross and shocking, shouldn’t it? It’s not shock for shock’s sake, but you also get the sense that Saulnier doesn’t consider “shocking” to be a great insult either. It’s just fitting that a movie about music where the audience punches each other would make its own audience go “OH!” from time to time.
Green Room relies almost entirely on plot and very little on character development, which is usually an insult, but Saulnier’s strength is that while he doesn’t delve, he also doesn’t cheat. There aren’t rapid character swings or miraculous coincidences or deus ex machina holding it together, and yet he’s still able to maintain a consistent level of white knuckle tension and stomach churning dread. Green Room‘s most interesting character is a skinhead functionary played by Saulnier’s childhood friend and Blue Ruin star Macon Blair, a just-doing-my-job-sir Nazi middle manager type, a sort of universal striver who just happens to be striving in a really f*cked up subculture, where the end goal is getting his “red laces.”
The grubby van-band experience is recognizable, but also heightened to the last fingernail of believability, which is somewhat to be expected in a movie about a nightmarish skinhead murder fight. It’s basically an exploitation film made (reasonably) believable, and will definitely hit home if you ever got elbowed in the teeth by skinheads at a punk show growing up.
The most questionable choice in it was the casting. Joe Cole from Peaky Blinders plays one of the Ain’t Rights (a jiu-jitsu hobbyist punk guitarist), but never quite hits his American accent. A regional accent is easily explained away; it’s the watered down, murky ones that take you out of a story, where you can’t quite tell what the actor’s trying to play. I’m still not sure whether Patrick Stewart was supposed to be British or American (the acting works, even if the accent is confusing). Surprisingly, Imogen Poots, who plays a sympathetic skinhead chick with a Fairuza Balk haircut, manages to be convincingly American despite having a name more English than Crumpet Lorrypoofton. I didn’t even realize it was her until the credits.
In any case, Green Room probably isn’t going to change the way you think about life, it’s just a good blood-and-guts shoot ’em up that’ll kick your balls in for a few hours.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.