Fantastic Fest 2015: Jeremy Saulnier's Brutally Fantastic 'Green Room'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 30, 2015
Simple motivations that lead to very complicated situations, driven by generally inept protagonists: that's where up-and-coming writer/director Jeremy Saulnier excels. Whether it's an unassuming Halloween party or the simple revenge of the death of a loved one, his films layer intriguing characters with engaging events, and none of the results are predictable. So, too, is the case with the ultraviolent Green Room, Saulnier's latest. It's another brutal, suspenseful and daring entry into Saulnier's self-described "inept protagonist" trilogy in which choices made just make bad choices worse and worse all the way to the absolute worst-possible outcome. Much like his other films, though, Green Room is as smart as it is thrilling, just as rough as it is comical. In a nutshell, it's Saulnier's most accomplished gem to date.
The inept protagonist(s) this time around – again, Saulnier's words, not mine – are the members of a punk rock band. They're down on their luck, they're van is out of gas, and their wallets are growing empty. The band siphons gas as they try to make it to one, more gig, so they can make enough money to drive back home. The gig they make isn't what they expected, and the band finds themselves in the deep, secluded woods of Oregon at a skinhead bar where the owners, employees, and much of the crowd is made up of a small group of elitist Neo-Nazis. It's probably not the best location in which to stumble upon a murder scene in the green room, but that particular bump in their road is exactly what the band comes across. It isn't long before a fight for survival – or, at the very least, a fight against horrible dismemberment – ensues.
Saulnier's films, Murder Party and Blue Ruin before this, move at a break-neck pace from frame one. That isn't to say his films are loaded with incessant action, far from it. Every scene that makes up a Saulnier film, however, is driven by the development of his characters and dilemmas. The opening scene of Green Room, though short and simple, tells us so much about the band we're following as well as the dynamic of its five members. Everyone's motivation is easily determined, simply stated, and naturally understood, and the villains, victims, and heroes Saulnier creates all have a highly organic air about them. They're real people inadvertently getting themselves into real situations.
"Really dangerous situations" is what I probably should have said, and Saulnier once again proves he isn't one to shy away from caking on the violence. Once Green Room turns from set-up to action, all basic rules for your typical siege movie fly right out the window. That's one of the filmmaker's gifts when it comes to his brand of storytelling. The outcomes and left turns his screenplays take are cleverly contrived and smartly plotted, but they are never easy to predict. With Green Room, a film whose simple, single-location shares more with Murder Party than Blue Ruin, Saulnier always has the viewer on their toes.
The deaths in the film come at the most surprising of times and generally executed in the most brutal fashion imaginable. That goes for band members and club employees alike creating one hell of a violent tornado that runs all the way through Green Room's tight 94 minute running time. There isn't any fat to be trimmed, no bloated moments of exposition to keep the audience updated. The film is an endless storm of swinging blades and gnashing teeth and ripped-up flesh. Green Room is as brutal in its violence than even the most audacious horror film, and it's all presented with an ample amount of humor.
Much of that humor comes from the natural dynamic of the characters, Saulnier filling the roles with some remarkable talent. Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner portray the band members, who have a natural charisma between them. The actors all project an organic awareness of one another and sense of humor with each other that helps them grow into realistic characters. Imogen Poots is equally witty and grounded as an audience member who unfortunately gets trapped along with the band.
On the reverse side, the actors portraying the skinheads have the same level of camaraderie within their rankings. Saulnier does a fine job establishing their reasons as well as their actions, the internal hierarchy of the group also developing as the film progresses. There's even room for a little sympathy when it comes to a few of them. Leading this charge is Sir Patrick Stewart, who fills the role the Neo-Nazi leader with a natural intensity. He doesn't have to scream. He doesn't have to perform drastic acts of violence. With a casual conversation and the low, unassuming voice to match, Stewart defines the menace in his character for which he's aiming.
Stewart's incredible performance could be viewed as the high mark for the film, but Green Room excels at so much it's just one of an endless stream of positive notes. As brutally violent as the film gets, Saulnier never loses his grip on its sense of levity, making Green Room a prime candidate for fans of midnight movies. It's not just surface-level entertainment, though, either. Saulnier has certainly proven himself and continues to do so with films that are engaging, escapist, and extremely intelligent. Subject matter aside, Green Room is Saulnier's most punk rock work to date.
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