[This is a re-post of my Green Room review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release this weekend and expands on April 29th.]
Director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) is back on the festival circuit with an especially grisly horror-thriller. Green Room is expertly shot and paced, and rocks a surprisingly layered script that shows far more than it tells, enticing you to lean in closer and closer with every stab, dog bite and shotgun blast.
Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Reece (Joe Cole) are The Ain’t Rights, a punk band that’s hit a serious rough patch and needs to syphon gas to get from gig to gig. When they get the chance to make $350, they jump at the opportunity and agree to play for an audience of neo-Nazi skinheads at a secluded backwater bar. Even though the crowd revolts when they open with the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” the rest of their set goes well. Trouble is, before they can take off with the money, Pat’s got to go back into the green room to grab their phone and winds up seeing something he shouldn’t, forcing them to barricade themselves inside, kicking off an especially vicious standoff with their hosts.
Saulnier doesn’t waste a second of screen time and almost instantly pulls you right into the film. He immediately establishes this eerie green and yellow-heavy color palette that makes the transition from life on the road to the standoff to the pure chaos especially seamless while also bolstering the feeling that you’re trapped right alongside the main characters.
The band members could be sorted into stereotypes, but Yelchin, Shawkat, Turner and Cole strike up such a convincing chemistry that any familiarities feel appropriate and natural. Pat’s the reluctant leader, Sam’s the responsible one, Tiger’s the quiet one (except when he sings) and Reece is the hothead, and that combination makes them vulnerable but also suggests that, if they put their heads together, they do have a fighting chance against the bar owner, Darcy (Patrick Stewart), and his thugs.
They’ve certainly got the weaponry to make this a miserable experience for The Ain’t Rights, but what makes Darcy an especially unnerving threat is the unwavering control he has throughout the situation. Had The Ain’t Rights been locked in that room without two skinheads who are well aware of how things will likely play out, Darcy’s congenial negotiations at the start of the incident certainly could have been persuasive enough to draw them out.
The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of The Ain’t Rights, but Saulnier doesn’t turn Darcy into some all-powerful leader with a nameless, faceless gang of thugs backing him up. They’re a well-defined enemy unit with a clear hierarchy and order-of-operations, making the movie much more than a skinhead vs. punk band bloodbath. As one might expect, Macon Blair of Blue Ruin delivers exceptional work as Gabe, the bar manager. It’s quickly made clear that he’s trying to prove himself to Darcy and, throughout the film, he uses similar scare tactics while also letting just enough individuality shine through to make him more than just a righthand man.
In addition to Gabe, there must be about a dozen skinheads flanking Darcy and almost every single one of them has his moment from the nearly unrecognizable Mark Webber to the man in charge of the attack dogs. On top of providing a clear sense of the scope of the group, Saulnier also does a downright incredible job presenting the geography of the bar, revealing just enough of the layout to spark hope that there’s a way out while keeping enough of it a mystery to give the impression that anyone could be lurking around the corner.
One of the movie’s greatest assets is that The Ain’t Rights aren’t a group of horror movie victims that make stupid decisions from start to finish, essentially sealing their own fate. I’d like to bet most would choose to arm themselves with the same makeshift weapons and even when their decisions do become reckless, the sheer terror and frustration of their confinement justifies them. It’s also quite remarkable how well Saulnier expertly weaves in Imogen Poots’ character. She’s one of the two skinheads trapped in the green room with the band. The other guy is a threatening heavy (Eric Edelstein) on Darcy’s side, but Amber is just as frightened as The Ain’t Rights. She’s got one of the most curious arcs in the film, making the move from an outsider and wildcard to slowly proving her worth.
As for the violence, there’s certainly no shortage of blood and carnage. There’s shotguns, boxcutters, attack dogs and so much more. Green Room features some of the most impressive gore and makeup effects work I’ve seen in a while and Saulnier certainly celebrates the achievement, taking the time to let his camera linger on the gruesome details.
One screening of the Green Room just isn’t enough. The 95 minutes are so enthralling and fly by so fast that it’s got a rollercoaster effect. It’s hard to come down from the adrenaline rush and think of anything else besides experiencing it again.