Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a movie so unsettling and brutal, it’s almost cruel to recommend it. One of the most nerve-wracking moments comes before all bloody hell breaks loose. The protagonists are a D.C.-based punk quartet, The Ain’t Rights — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Reece (Joe Cole) — playing an impromptu gig at a Pacific Northwest rural skinhead bar after a scheduled one falls through. Not content to take the money and run, they decide to poke their hosts — by playing a cover of Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”
Green Room has gotten lots of well-deserved attention for Saulnier’s skills at creating pure, low-down genre intensity. Though his approach to his characters is in many ways minimalist, this isn’t a movie where warm bodies exist to be dispatched in creatively unpleasant ways. Buried in this crackling siege thriller is a story about kids posing at living on the edge, until they get in a situation where they see what the edge really looks like.
And it looks damn awful when The Ain’t Rights make the mistake of walking back into the club’s Green Room, just in time to see that a musician in another band has just been murdered. The club’s owner, Darcy (Patrick Stewart), doesn’t want his club become a crime scene for a police investigation, since he’s dealing heroin from the basement. The witnesses — now including Amber (Imogen Poots), who’s in another band — can’t be allowed to complicate things.
Much of the rest takes place in that space below, as the terrified musicians realize there’s nothing good outside the lockable door. Saulnier builds his claustrophobic horror in a way reminiscent of films, from Assault on Precinct 13 and The Purge to 10 Cloverfield Lane, depending on false starts and bold risks to avoid a sense of stasis. He knows how to use wince-inducing (or hurl-inducing, depending on your tolerance level) bits of graphic violence for maximum impact, finding watch-through-your-fingers uses for machetes, box-cutters and attack dogs.
When he’s not shocking us, Saulnier works other, easier moments, displaying filmmaking gifts that have grown since his 2013 indie breakout Blue Ruin. He shows some ruthless narrative efficiency in capturing the passage of time, cutting from the opening five seconds of a song on vinyl to that same record with the needle in the runout groove. He’s bold enough to have Amber tell why she’s a white supremacist, her words as background noise as others search for a way out, telling us her narrative doesn’t matter.
That’s just part of the general approach to unconventional character development. That the “villains” are white supremacists is irrelevant to plot progression, but Saulnier wants the antagonists scarily methodical rather than an ignorant, purely physical threat. Stewart seems like an odd choice for the main heavy, less interesting than club manager Gabe (Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair), an enigmatic mix of true believer and pragmatist.
Green Room works due to the characters Saulnier puts in that room. From the first, when we see their van has run in a cornfield because the driver fell asleep, to their guerrilla missions to siphon gas to keep the road trip rolling, it’s clear The Ain’t Rights are living their idea of a punk life. They tell an interviewer their “desert-island bands” are Misfits and The Damned, but it’s a different story they tell each other in a terrifying new reality. Green Room excels as a horror movie, but it’s also about the horror of realizing that no matter how hard you try to convince the world you’re badass, there are things — and people — out there much harder.