Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart
4 (out of 5) Globes
In his three-and-a-half star review for “Aliens,” Roger Ebert tried to find a way to explain his complex reaction: He admired the craft of a thriller that never lets up, but couldn’t exactly say he “enjoyed” it. The same goes for “Green Room,” a sadistic nerve-jangler of precise cinemascope frames, unnervingly dim lighting and expertly drawn-out tension, all designed to send viewers into abusing theater armchairs. Did you have a good time? Sort of. You also wallowed in a world where decent people get their throats devoured by man-eating dogs, to say nothing of all the neo-Nazis bumbling about with big knives and guns. It’s brilliant but unpleasant, but genius, but miserable, and so on and so forth.
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Our heroes have already had it hard before their lives are actually put in danger. They’re an Arlington hardcore band so cash-trapped on their sad non-tour that they reluctantly agree to do a backwoods Oregon punk festival, one that just happens to be populated by aggro supremacists prone to Confederate flags and stickers that read “anti-racist = anti-white.” Playing for skinheads engaged in a collective neck tattoo-off is bad enough. What could possibly be worse? How about when the fest runners are almost certainly bent on killing them because they stumbled upon a murder they’d rather cover up than report to the police?
The bulk of “Green Room” is a survive-the-night grinder crossed with a home invasion thriller, only one where the home is the compound’s gnarly green room and the would-be invaders include a soft-spoken Patrick Stewart. Our young, not always bright protagonists hole up in a joint with no exits, where the only escape, it becomes quickly apparent, is creating makeshift weapons and hoping they won’t get shot in the face. Saulnier is unforgiving to both sides. Good or bad, nice or nervy, smart or kind of dumb, they’re all equally prone to ends to are gasp-worthingly horrific, one of them one of cinema’s better out-of-nowhere deaths. Failing that, they could even suffer a nasty mauling and just require duct tape. The cast includes pleasant Anthon Yelchin, sarcastic Alia Shawkat and an atypically grungy Imgoen Poots — all personality machines who could still meet grim fates.
Even moreso than with “Blue Ruin,” Saulnier is a whiz at sustaining intensity, which is already high but sometimes ramps up even further into nastiness. The worlds he creates are ones where everyone is forced to turn feral, and even the bad guys can have moments of deep and disturbing humanity. Stewart’s character, the old man leader of a bunch of angry white boys, speaks gently and even gravely. He's genuinly haunted, which makes his atrocities and bigotry even more unnerving. One can sense panic on both sides, and the tables can turn so that the good guys can be turn into murderous monsters. As Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne growls in “Batman v Superman,” no one gets out of this world clean. The difference is this is a film that understands it deep in its gut.
Indeed, “Green Room” understands it so deeply that the trauma of watching it lasts far longer than after it ends (with a cool song, btw). It’s not just a deep stew in humanity at its worst. It lives and breathes the way young people can live on poor pay and squalid conditions. It gets the exhausted drive of go-nowhere bands, including this one, who are so principled they refuse to do social media or record on anything but vinyl. It knows the little details, like siphoning off gas to fuel a junky van or waxing poetic to an earnest, mohawked amateur journalist about “texture.” “Green Room” is so rooted in its specifically unpleasant world that one escapes from it needing a shower. You probably won’t forget it. You’ll probably even very much admire it, even, if you will, enjoy it.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge