‘GREEN ROOM’ WITH SPLASHES OF RED
Punk rockers battle neo-nazis in scary thriller
“Green Room” introduces itself via a succession of small, smart surprises before settling (or unsettling) into the horror/ siege scenario that represents its tense, bloody reason for being. It begins in near darkness, with green stalks pressing against inadequate windows. The looming foliage suggests a jungle, but we quickly realize we’re in a less menacing if still unusual location, a cornfield. More, we’re inside the stalled, grungy tour van of the Ain’t Rights, an earnest, progressive punk band on a subsistence-level road trip across America. The van is in a field because its driver has fallen asleep at the wheel. So the movie opens in a moment of banal crisis: a pit stop before the life-or-death danger to come.
The Ain’t Rights are the good guys, so it’s a bit of a naughty thrill when we discover they fuel their van with gas siphoned from parked cars; it’s less unexpected (but entirely welcome, as a touch of authenticity) when we learn the band relies on the borrowed floors of insolvent fans and hobbyist promoters for overnight accommodations. The payoffs after gigs are unimpressive. “Split four ways, it’s six bucks each,” says the lone distaff Ain’t Right, Sam (Alia Shawkat), after one botched booking.
The band’s other undercompensated members include green-haired vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner); Reese (Joe Cole), a drummer and — fortuitously — ju-jitsu enthusiast; and Pat, a soft-spoken guitarist. We assume Pat will be one of the final survivors because he is played by the most familiar of the male Ain’t Rights, Anton Yelchin, veteran of the “Star Trek” and “Terminator” franchises. (Incidentally, the script makes a point of noting that the old-school Ain’t Rights have no social media presence, a plot detail that apparently is going to join “hey, there’s no cellphone service here” in future shockers.) Sam (Alia Shawkat) and Pat (Anton Yelchin, right) are two members of the Ain’t Rights punk band.
Previous horror movies — 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” most famously — have demonstrated that young people who travel in vans to remote locations may not live to regret it. Was “Green Room” inspired by an episode in 1980’s “Motel Hell,” in which a van of punk rockers is run off the road so the members of Ivan and the Terribles can join the “all kinds of critters” found in “Farmer Vincent’s fritters”? That movie was, essentially, a comedy, while “Green Room,” for all its occasional humor, is staged with straight-edge sobriety, the better to rack the nerves.
“Green Room” foregrounds the anti-urban racial isolationism implicit to the inbred rural killer clans of “Chain Saw” and
the like. Booked into a bunkerlike compound in the Oregon backwoods that proves to be a clubhouse for white-supremacist skinheads and their snarling Rottweilers, the Ain’t Rights open with a provocation, the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F--- Off.” The musicians aren’t in real danger, however, until they become accidental witnesses to a crime in the so-called green room (the place in a venue where performers hang out while offstage). At this point, the movie becomes a siege film in the vein of “Straw Dogs,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Purge,” to name just three popular examples, with the Ain’t Rights and another witness (Imogen Poots) trapped inside the room with a corpse, a hostile skinhead hostage and few notions on how to escape, much less survive.
Outside, the racists are mobilized by their saturnine leader, played by Patrick Stewart, whose theatrical authority and major-studio familiarity has a talismanic effect: He validates the film for non-grunge fans, reassuring moviegoers who shy away from violent exploitation fare that this project has merit, in addition to a low budget and agonizingly realistic (if limited) gross-out gore effects.
If the movie’s villains are neo-nazis, its style is neo-grindhouse. Like writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s previous release, the economical revenge thriller “Blue Ruin” (2013, starring Macon Blair, who is very effective in a supporting role in “Green Room”), this is a genre film that owes as much to the American indie movement of the past decade — to “mumblecore” and its arty offshoots — as to the gruesome thrillers of the 1970s. Saulnier is part of an insurgency of filmmakers — others include Ti West (“The Sacrament”), Adam Wingard (“The Guest”), Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) and arguably even Josephine Decker (“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”) and, on occasion, the omnivorous Joe Swanberg (“Silver Bullets”) — that has embraced the do-it-yourself resourcefulness, supposed emotional honesty and photographic realism of independent cinema without renouncing the expressionistic extremes of violence and action that motivate and illuminate behavior in genre films.
If “Green Room” is infrequently a little too predictably “indie,” in its random pretty images and sometimes wan synth scoring, and if it is sometimes contrived in its scripting (a running joke about “desert island” bands and an interrupted paintball anecdote remind us this is only fiction, after all), it’s also unnerving, rousing and scary — and, in its final moments, unexpectedly touching and tragic. “Green Room” suggests Saulnier could be one of recent history’s most exciting commercial moviemakers, if he can avoid becoming lost in the maze of Bond/marvel/etc. franchise offers no doubt already coming his way.
“Green Room” is exclusively at the Malco Paradiso.
Jake Kasch (from left), Macon blair and Patrick Stewart appear in the tense horror/siege film “Green Room.”