Punks vs. Nazis: Tightly cranked "Green Room" ratchets up lip-biting tension

Green Room (2016)
94 min., rated R.

Unless it’s obscure, “Green Room” is the first siege thriller that pits a punk band against a clan of white-power neo-Nazi skinheads. It’s that specificity in the premise and of both cultural subsets, as well as a nearly suffocating level of tension, that writer-director Jeremy Saulnier gets so right. In 2014’s “Blue Ruin,” Saulnier’s breakout sophomore effort, the filmmaker proved himself one to watch as an artisan in lean, mean visual storytelling about the cycle of violence and the primal human need to survive. “Green Room” is more of a straight-up genre picture, but even if that’s the case, it is cool, efficient, ultra-violent genre filmmaking.

About to end their tour through the Pacific Northwest, Arlington punk rock band The Ain’t Rights—anti-social media bass player Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), lead vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole)—need a solid gig. They’re so desperate for cash that they even have to siphon gas for their van from vehicles in parking lots. When they are interviewed by a Mohawked radio host, he sets them up with a gig right outside of Portland but warns them that the sketchy backwoods venue will be full of skinheads and advises them to avoid politics. Their set goes rather well and the pay is $350, but right before the band clears out, one of them witnesses a brutal murder that they weren’t supposed to see in the green room. The white-supremacist club bouncers have to clean up the situation quickly before calling in bar owner and leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart), but the band, along with the murder victim’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots), successfully hole themselves up in the green room and will have to outsmart their assailants on the other side of the door if they want to get out alive. There’s safety in numbers, right?

Unsparingly grim and lip-bitingly tense, “Green Room” rattles along on forthright escalation rather than corkscrew twists. It is a slow-burn thriller that still feels tightly cranked and smartly enthralling, simmering to its boiling point and then ratcheting up the intensity with attack dogs and box cutters. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier lulls the viewer into the desperate, unglamorous on-the-road lifestyle of The Ain’t Rights before any of the startling carnage. Things might not get much deeper here than a face-off between a punk band and neo-Nazis, although the assumed ideas of both of these groups are at least challenged a bit with more humanity than the norm of most exploitation pics. For instance, The Ain’t Rights play a game of choosing their “desert island” bands with their choices nicely ironic (i.e. Simon & Garfunkel, Britney Spears, Prince, etc.). On the villainous side: “We’re not keeping you. You’re just staying,” Nazi henchman Gabe (Macon Blair) says with a sinister calm, but then there’s a telling, all-too-human vulnerability. 

The punk-band characters aren’t given fleshed-out backgrounds, but their camaraderie with one another feels genuinely drawn and not acted. They have too much personality to just be fodder for the Nazis’ machetes and who they are is informed through their actions and decisions. Instantly, the viewer can rally behind them as soon as their lives are put in danger. Some of them may become victims, but they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. The cast is adept, with the familiar faces—Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat and Imogen Poots—being the standouts. To single out the kick-ass, mullet-haired Poots, the actress is especially watchable with a clipped, dryly amusing delivery as wild-card stranger Amber. Game to get down and dirty as cold-blooded yet pragmatic skinhead leader Darcy Banker, Patrick Stewart is chilling and threatening without having to even raise his voice, which is formidable enough at an inside-voice level. “Blue Ruin” lead Macon Blair is anything but one-note as club bouncer Gabe who tries to call all the shots and do everything efficiently but knows he’s in over his head.

A merciless maelstrom set within grungy, cramped quarters for much of its 94 minutes, “Green Room” mounts and mounts with grabby urgency and anything-can-happen danger. A battle of wits and survival begins as Darcy uses his power of persuasion from the other side of the door and asks the band to hand over the gun they've retrieved, forcing The Ain't Rights to become resourceful in other ways as they plan their escape out of that one door. When the kill-or-be-killed spree takes off in the second half, the violence is very savage and matter-of-fact without coming across gratuitous for the hell of it. It's also underscored by cinematographer Sean Porter having an eye for making nerve-shredding chaos look controlled. A couple of the characters’ deaths happen off-screen or in the darkness, but there are enough understated down moments between the remaining bandmates before their demises that allow the loss of those lives to be felt with a proper impact. Overall, “Green Room” still seems a tad slight without the same kind of contemplative depth or cathartic resonance as Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin." Then again, is it a pulpy, ruthlessly paced, nastily fun midnight movie? Yes, yes, it is.