With Green Room, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier solidifies his burgeoning reputation as an action auteur capable of making brutally effective thrillers on a modest budget. Those looking for exploitation-style thrills and chills won't be disappointed, but those intrigued by the subcultural conflict between punks and Neo-Nazis may be left hanging by the film's surprisingly bloodless politics.
The high-concept premise involves a touring Washington, D.C. punk rock band, booked at the last minute to perform for a "boots-and-braces crowd" of white-power skinheads in the woods of Washington state. Stumbling upon an internecine murder gets the band locked in the club's green room while the skins decide what to do with them. Saulnier expertly paces the siege's devolution into a bloodbath—the suspense is nail-biting, the violence horrific—with enough humor to keep things lively.
Despite Saulnier's D.I.Y. cred (he started out as a cinematographer, and shot his last two films himself) and his obvious affinity for seventies and eighties genre cinema, his sensibility is more compatible with mainstream Hollywood than one might expect. His last feature, Blue Ruin, in which a pudgy drifter out for revenge pulls off feats of badassery, owes as much to Die Hard as it does to Rolling Thunder. Likewise, in Green Room, the narrative centers on a wimpy "regular guy" (Pat, Anton Yelchin's retiring bassist) forced by circumstance to embrace violence as a rite of passage.
Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, cited by Saulnier as an influence, had a more ambiguous take on the macho myth structure Green Room reproduces. Peckinpah's protagonist represented a priggish coastal elite. His liberal pacifism thinly masked his fear of and contempt for the residents of the working-class English village he arrogantly assumed could serve as his private retreat. The final showdown implicated the audience in a way that Green Room completely forecloses by pitting basically decent kids (endearingly, their band is called “The Ain't Rights”) against full-on fascists.
The closest the film comes to an authentic provocation—aside from casting nerd grandpa Patrick Stewart as the gang's führer—is the self-evident observation that punk and skinhead cultures have related aesthetics. After a rough start, instigated by the punk rockers' choice of The Dead Kennedys’ "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" as their opener, the band's show settles into a groove, their music replaced by swelling ambient synths over a slow-mo montage of the skins getting down.
Throughout, Green Room favors sensory immersion at the expense of context. After the show, a skinhead confronts Pat to ask him the name of one of the songs. After he stammers out his answer, the skin nods appreciatively: "It was fuckin' hard, man." The implication—punks and white supremacists share a desire for ecstatic communion through aggression that transcends ideology—might have been interesting if it went anywhere, but the only direct political speech comes through half-audible background dialogue and the slogan stickers decorating the interiors.
Saulnier's real interests come through in the film's references to technology. When a college radio DJ asks the band why they don't promote themselves on social media, Pat launches into a speech about the virtue of analog: "When you take it all virtual you lose texture." The series of events leading to the band's imprisonment is set in motion by a misplaced cell phone; we're repeatedly reminded that the whole bloody ordeal would be over in a minute if anyone could call 911. And in a tense chase scene, the skinheads' attack dogs are temporarily stalled by the use of microphone feedback.
Impressive practical effects, the expert use of minimal interior sets, and action-oriented plotting all testify to the visceral impact of brute matter. Green Room is an ambivalent sort of nostalgia film, in which an off-the-grid world free from modernity's alienation is subject to the cruel reason of violent men.