Green Room is little more than an exercise in unrelenting tension. It locks its sympathetic protagonists in a small space, trapping them with danger all around. The situation doesn’t look good, and only gets worse as it springs a steadily more inevitable series of violent incidents upon them. There’s a grim competence to its interest in the process of their plight. This is writer-director Jeremy Saulnier playing to his strengths. His last movie, the small-budget success Blue Ruin, was a clammy revenge thriller that was at its best when methodically locked in on its squirming characters as they fumbled toward hard-fought empty catharsis. Here Saulnier brings only that sense of mounting dread, put to use for a movie more interested in conventional genre thrills, in building a contraption by which to torture its characters for our benefit. You could almost read it as a restrained sideways slasher picture, more muted and dry than that subgenre’s usual fare, but just as single-minded in its kills.
At its center is an obscure, struggling young punk band, members played by familiar faces Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat with young character actors Joe Cole and Callum Turner. Likable enough, they seem like cuddly rockers, the sort drawn to hard rock as a way of posturing over their vulnerabilities. In it for the love of music, they’ve barely enough in their coffers for a tank of gas. The group is so desperate for a gig they decide to head out to a backwoods skinhead bar where, through the cousin of an acquaintance, they’ve been promised $350 for a quick afternoon set. “Just don’t talk politics,” their helpful contact (David W. Thompson) advises. It goes off without a hitch until they happen to witness a murder, and then get locked in the green room – with the dead body, a hulking gun-toting guard (Eric Edelstein), and a frightened punk fan (Imogen Poots) – while the neo-Nazis gather on the other side of the door, wanting to get these interlopers out of the picture. Will they get framed? Tortured? Murdered? Whatever happens, it won’t be good, that’s for sure.
Saulnier gives the film a precision and clarity, capably mapping out the tight quarters and allowing us to understand the characters’ reactions. We process the threat as they do, while cutting between their claustrophobic fear and the looming threats assembling outside. The story is so quickly sketched there’s little room to understand the players as people or figure out their motivations beyond survival. What little background information there is gets doled out in convenient downtime lulls. The leads are so inherently appealing, however, that Saulnier merely has to ensnare them in his meticulous frames and crisp cuts to get the sympathy going. It helps that he has some real powerhouses for villains, making his Blue Ruin star Macon Blair into a soft-spoken henchman and no less than Patrick Stewart the main antagonist. He carries with him the aura of authority, lending much needed weight that's not exactly on the page to a mild-mannered Nazi who calmly assess the need to coax the band out to be killed, or, failing that, storm the green room and cut them up there.
So it’s a siege movie, like Assault on Precinct 13 or Die Hard, but played at a quieter and smaller scale. The sides are obvious, the goals are clear, and the obstacles are agonizingly stubborn. Saulnier provides good specificity to the locale, a dim and ugly lived-in bar with dangerous hate group fanatics growling and prowling. But the movie isn’t about a clash of ideology. That they’re neo-Nazis is only to provide shorthand for their villainy. (And for Shawkat to snark backstage that if Yelchin doesn’t do what she says, she’ll “tell them you’re Jewish.”) It’s not about ideas. It’s not even about music, punk rock only used for energy, background noise, and set dressing. It’s about strategy, watching as characters play out a literal and deadly locked-room game, making use of their wits to maneuver the few tools available to them and finagle a way to survive.
Crescendos of taut tension escalate to outbursts of truly disgusting displays of violence, detailed in the seeping wounds, spurting blood, dangling flesh, and gaping gashes. This is a slick, skuzzy, and carefully composed little thriller, Sean Porter’s cinematography so handsome and Julia Bloch’s editing so meticulous that Saulnier builds to Green Room’s most shocking moments with horrifying deadpan. It’s been a while since I heard an entire audience wince as one in response to an unexpected gory moment. The film may not add up to much beyond a visceral kick of surprise and terror while likable people get menaced, maimed, and murdered – and the tremble of relief as some find safety, even if it’s only temporary – but the experience is admirably tense. This is the sort of smartly constructed and capably executed thriller that may not have a lot on its mind, but at least it’s gripping on its own terms.