The characters in Jeremy Saulnier’s films are never flawed or tragic; they’re catastrophically useless. His debut feature, Murder Party (2007), follows a lonely halfwit who finds a discarded invitation for the titular gathering. Unwittingly, he attends, only to be captured by a group of starving artists trying to factor his death into their work. Hours pass, and the only thing they manage to do is prove they’re more clueless than he is. Saulnier’s follow-up, Blue Ruin (2013), sees a homeless man attempting a violent revenge mission, revealing very quickly that he doesn’t actually know what he’s doing. In both films, the punishments for being stupid are swift and horrifying: heads are torn apart by sniper bullets; characters are incinerated to within an inch of their lives; and even leaving a bag of cocaine near a hungry Alsatian can have disastrous consequences. It’s nauseatingly obvious, then, what direction the events are going to take in Green Room, Saulnier’s latest, when a stranded punk band perform the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to a room full of – lo and behold – Nazi punks.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg, however. After the set, the band – the Ain’t Rights – is ushered out of the club, but not before witnessing a murder that has taken place backstage. They’re subsequently held hostage by a neo-Nazi organisation, headed by the nightmarish Darcy (Patrick Stewart) who plans to dispose of the band members as witnesses to the crime. This being a Saulnier film, the Ain’t Rights are not even remotely prepared to deal with being assaulted by skinheads, nor for witnessing the unlimited destruction that can be inflicted on a human body.
But it works both ways: the skinheads, while merciless, are given as much screen time as the band, and are humanised to the point where Saulnier finds it necessary for them to die. Darcy doesn’t wage all-out war on the Ain’t Rights, at least not at first; he has an organisation to lead, and a business to run, so he wants the deaths of the band members to be staged as incidental murders somewhere offsite. His bouncers and soldiers are susceptible to the sort of vulnerability that is basically a death certificate in a Saulnier film, and Gabe (Macon Blair), essentially the janitor of the crew, is merely a supervisor whose job it is to ensure everything goes to plan. As with Murder Party and Blue Ruin, however, nothing does.
As bones are snapped and bodies burst, the flourishes of filmmaking intensify the jaw-dropping terrors that permeate the flick. Green Room’s colour scheme is based on its title, starting out in the innocuous woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, and eventually darkening to a sickly Hooker’s green as the band arrives at the punk club. There, the dimly lit interiors cast a dank, morbid atmosphere across the film, making its many pools of blood appear black. The green room itself appears battle ravaged before anything’s even happened – almost as if this isn’t the first time someone’s been murdered in it – and it recalls the messy-but-detailed production design of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) and They Live (1988). What’s more, a dirge of hardcore and death metal constantly bleeds through the walls, the aggressive and ruinous aesthetics of those genres perpetuating the atmosphere and making backstage area feel truly deathlike.
Going back to Carpenter, Green Room also harks to Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), as many have noted, by using a similar premise of unlikely partnerships fighting to escape a siege by an enormous, bloodthirsty tribe. But where Assault is all wide-angled dead air and agoraphobic tension, Green Room uses the opposite tactic, cramming a battlefield’s worth of action into a single space that cannot reasonably contain it. The effect is nail-biting and uncomfortable, and it doubles down on the effect of Blue Ruin, a film that is basically ninety minutes of nervously watching a character who could be graphically slain at any given moment. By the time Green Room has become borderline unwatchable, however, we’re far too invested in the characters to look away.
Worth mentioning also is Imogen Poots who plays Amber, a strung-out neo-Nazi inductee, but also a friend of the initial murder victim. She isn’t introduced until everything starts to go horribly wrong, but quickly becomes the driving force in the movie (mainly because she’s the least useless character in it). Forced to join sides with the Ain’t Rights due to circumstance, she maintains her political views (“the people who hurt me weren’t white” is how she explains her Nazism) while also realising the benefit of teamwork, effectively summarising the film’s assessment that good and evil are products of nurture over nature. Saulnier’s treatment of his characters may seem indiscriminate and misanthropic, but he also likes to complicate them first, taking an influence from the flawed action protagonists of Michael Mann and re-modeling them for the modern working class.
The attention to detail in Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986) bears a further imprint on Saulnier, but it’s the way he combines that with the atmosphere of John Carpenter’s films in his own singular cinematic style that allows Green Room to become something other than a mere comparison fest. Saulnier has chops to match those of fellow genre filmmakers Adam Wingard, Ti West, and David Robert Mitchell, but he’s pushing the boat out even further than those guys, cementing his name in the history of genre cinema by channelling the same force as the music of the Ain’t Rights.
- Liam Ball