The medium of cinema is, with the exception of music, the most aggressive and effective way of having one’s emotions manipulated. Perhaps the most common emotion elicited by the movies is tension, for it exists in many forms. Indeed, there is no drama and no dramatic structure without tension. Even the most lighthearted comedies still elicit tension, no matter how low the stakes. Nowhere is tension a more powerful emotion than in the horror and suspense genre, and filmmakers have a myriad of ways of playing on an audience’s sympathies and fears. One way is to keep the audience as in the dark as the characters are, menaced by a threat that is unseen or unknowable, as in supernatural horror such as Paranormal Activity. Another is to tell the audience exactly what and who the threat is and why, and derive the tension from the struggle to figure out how to overcome the threat, as in thrillers such as Panic Room. The remarkable thing about writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s new film, Green Room, is that it manages to expertly elicit both these forms of tension, resulting in one of the most nail-biting films ever made.
Saulnier understands that the threat of violence is just as potent as the presence of violence itself, and sets the movie in an environment that is already a powder keg of aggression: the hardcore punk scene. Scrappy nobody DC punk band The Ain’t Rights, led by guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat) are on tour (or some semblance of it), bouncing from crappy gig to crappy gig. When they record an interview in Portland with a local radio DJ who points out their lack of social media presence and hooks them up with a gig that is sparsely attended and poorly paid, they begrudgingly accept a matinee slot at a white supremacist bar in the middle of nowhere in Oregon. After playing a confrontational cover of The Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off” onstage, the band are paid and ready to go when Pat steps into thegreen room and sees the aftermath of a murder, complete with corpse. The bar manager (Macon Blair) and staff push The Ain’t Rights into the room, lock the door, and call the owner, Darcy (Patrick Stewart) for help. It quickly becomes apparent that the band, along with Nazi punk groupie Amber (Imogen Poots) have seen too much, and are marked for murder unless they can escape.
The comparison to David Fincher’s Panic Room is illustrative, for where that film over-explained and over-complicated the narrative, Green Room illustrates and obfuscates just the right amount. Saulnier, as a writer, tends to hold back a lot of exposition, a device he employed in his previous film, Blue Ruin, which initially left me cold to that film’s innovations. At the end of that film, however, I realized how powerfully the lack of clearly laid out explanation fed the tension of the tale, and that quality is abundant in Green Room. The great thing is, Saulnier plays fair, and the explanations of why and what is happening are given not only visually but subtextually in the dialogue. Mr. Saulnier made an appearance at my screening of the film to give an interview and Q&A, and when I asked him about his dialogue he explained that if you pulled the script apart, it looks like all these non-sequiturs, but assembled back together begins to make sense. His characters speak so naturally it can be jarring at first if you’re used to “movie dialogue,” where characters tend to give prepared speeches, but it makes the experience of watching the film that much more immediate and richer.
That naturalism wouldn’t fly if Saulnier didn’t have a top-notch cast, which he does. Anton Yelchin is fantastic and completely credible as a kid in way over his head, first in life, then in this situation. When he’s injured during a violent episode, his sobs and wails of pain and fear are so credible and relatable that at no point do you judge his reaction, and yet it increases the suspense for the audience; here is our hero, and instead of an unstoppable He-Man, he is us. On the other side of things is Imogen Poots’ Amber, a riot girl who, despite her white supremacist background perhaps best represents the punk ethos on screen, exhibiting a anarchic attitude and strength. No performance is as quietly revelatory as Patrick Stewart’s Darcy, however, who tweaks his Professor X/Captain Picard persona just enough to be a grounded and credible leader of dangerous, hateful men. Even the supremacist henchmen are given thoughtful portrayals, relatability if not quite sympathy.
The credibility the cast brings is echoed in the effects and music of the film, which is thematically fitting given the punk scene’s constant obsession with authenticity. In the Q&A, Saulnier mentioned how he loved John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Green Room carries the torch from that film of practical effects work. Forearms are severed, throats are torn out and stomachs are slit without a dash of (noticeable, at least) CGI, keeping the danger real. As real as the punk tunes, which on the whole are either original songs performed by Patsy’s Rats, a band made up of the film’s crew members, or The Ain’t Rights, whose onscreen songs are tunes that Saulnier wrote with his own hardcore band back in the 80’s. The ambient yet feedback heavy score by Brooke and Will Blair keeps the mood steadily creepy, awaiting the next outburst of violence. Green Room is a movie that wants to give you an authentic experience, and that means taking you on a trip that’s as unforgiving as it is exhilarating. What’s more punk than that?
Green Room is playing in NY and LA now; it opens across the country on April 29th.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Apr. 16th, 2016.