Early in Green Room, a cash-hungry punk-rock band finds itself deep in the Oregon backwoods, performing uneasily for a rowdy troupe of white supremacists. The band members are surrounded by Confederate insignia and a stockpile of arms. Later, they stumble onto an illicit heroin operation that may explain the local economy and the many blank-eyed stares of its populace.
If these signposts sound familiar, you might expect this sneaky thriller to develop into a parable about the decline of white America. Indeed it’s hard not to watch the movie and wait for a reference to a certain presidential candidate promising to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain (though, I gather, it was filmed in 2014). But this is all a ruse. Soon after the rockers finish their set, the movie turns into a nasty, primal brawl—unbearably tense, incredibly violent, yet somehow limber and very funny. Green Room proves to be an exquisitely crafted love letter to John Carpenter, and the rare horror ensemble that gives as much care to the villains as to the victims.
At first, the movie deliberately doesn’t look like much. The sleepy clan of punks, the Ain’t Rights, is made up of familiarly lovable miscreants, including Anton Yelchin as the band’s amusingly naïve leader and a wry Alia Shawkat as its lone female member. They chug along in a ratty van on siphoned gas and fading renegade pride. When one failed gig in Podunk, Oregon, threatens to sink their tour, a mohawked local radio host mentions a nearby cousin who may have a show that pays enough to get them home to northern Virginia. The deep-woods compound is “right wing—well, technically, far left,” but it’ll be fine, he says. Just play your earlier—er, harder—stuff.
It will not be fine. An ominous air hangs over the band members from the moment they arrive at the makeshift village, thanks in part to the wonderfully dingy production design by Ryan Warren Smith, whose work in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy showed a studied eye for the barren parts of the Pacific Northwest. Once on the musty stage, faced with sneers and spit and tossed beer from a hostile audience, the band members nearly lose their nerve, getting by on grim jokes (“you book out now and I’ll tell them you’re Jewish”) and then, once they start playing, a surprisingly real connection with the crowd. Money in hand, the band heads for the door, but a lost cellphone leads them back into the bowels of the venue. (Let this be a lesson: Sometimes the phone just isn’t worth it.) There, a band member walks in on a horrific scene he wasn’t meant to see, and before long, he and his bandmates find themselves locked inside, increasingly sure their captors have no intention of letting any of them leave.
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier then makes a canny move: He delays the inevitable blood-letting. Instead, he pivots the movie’s focus from the band’s terror to an unexpectedly funny, sensitive portrait of the Nazi faction outside. The white supremacists are led by Patrick Stewart, a clever bit of stunt casting the film never quite figures out what to do with, despite his supreme iciness. The “Red Laces,” as the Nazi fighters call themselves, are far from faceless villains. They seem both strident and unsure of themselves, and their nationalist bravado barely conceals their fear as their situation eventually deteriorates. You almost feel bad for them. By the time Stewart lumbers onto the scene in order to deal with the band, it’s clear the loyalties of his crew are not as straightforward as they once seemed.
But the movie is no sociological study, either. Saulnier is best known for his circumspect 2014 revenge thriller Blue Ruin, and while that movie insisted we examine the consequences of our bloodlust, Green Room has no such demands—except that we keep watching. Limbs are torn, stomachs are slit open, and throats are chewed away by dogs as the battle escalates. Yet even when the skinny bandmates mount their defense, the film never rubs our noses in the gore, the kind of grim showmanship that can make lesser movies into grueling slogs. And we come to understand these characters so well, punk rockers and Nazis alike, that the physical blows aren’t nearly as distressing as watching these surrogate families splinter and come undone.
This kind of genre maturity and control can’t help but bring to mind John Carpenter, whose influence pervades the movie like a grandfather’s cologne. Even casual fans of Carpenter will think of Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter’s 1976 exploitation masterwork, which shares Green Room’s amoral survivalism and malleable sense of good and evil. Saulnier, like Carpenter, stages each assault and counterassault between the two factions with brutal efficiency and a dose of weary humor (there’s a perfect running gag about each character’s desert island band). The dueling tones keep the movie sharp as the blood flows and flows.
Yet for all its cool swagger as a thriller, Green Room may be most memorable as an unlikely ensemble triumph. Patrick Stewart as a latter-day Nazi guru is just the beginning. Instead of anemic, whiny rockers and faceless thugs, we get one startlingly nuanced performance after another, especially from Yelchin, Imogen Poots as a lapsed Nazi, and David W. Thompson as the cousin who sets it all in motion. If the world knows any justice, and Green Room, in the end, asserts it does, then the Screen Actors Guild will remember this cast when it doles out its awards next year. But I suspect the real appreciation will have to come in the audible winces, covered eyes, and uneasy laughs by audiences, as the one at my screening cheerfully supplied on cue.