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Adam Woodward

Green Room – first look review

Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier delivers another consummately crafted backwoods thriller.

For anyone who’s ever hit the road with some friends and a boot-full of beaten up instruments, Green Room will carry a special resonance. Living hand to mouth, show to show, playing for change in dive bars in shitheel town after shitheel town, with any luck plugging the gaps in your loosely sketched route by gratefully slotting into random bills. For many it’s a short-lived yet essential rite of passage, a formative period of self-discovery through conscious nonconformity.

Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin – which took home the FIPRESCI Prize at Director’s Fortnight in 2013 – sets out its stall as a nostalgia-tinged ode to being in a band as a restless twentysomething and believing unconditionally in everything that band stands for. In the case of hardcore punk four-piece Ain’t Rights, their DIY idealism is as well-worn as the faded Minor Threat t-shirt worn by Anton Yelchin’s bass player, Pat.

He and fellow band members Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) earn their scenester stripes when they rock up to a secluded boots-and-braces bar and proceed to launch into a full-blooded rendition of ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ by Dead Kennedys. It’s a moment of searing intensity met with snarling hostility by the resident skinheads. As Ain’t Rights tear through their set the spit and suds continue to fly, the knife-edge tension cutting through the sludgy bass, thrashing power chords and splintered vocals.

Then the music stops.

To reveal anything about what happens next would be to spoil the fun. Let’s just say the band’s rider isn’t the only thing that’s swiftly dispatched in the eponymous backstage area. With the film’s bait and switch complete, Saulnier wastes no time in shifting through the gears like a boxcutter through butter, all the while keeping the audience confined to this cramped, windowless punk bunker. It’s an ingenious use of setting and space – the incidental heavy music and scuzzy decor heightening the sense of dread that permeates every inch of the venue.

The casting is equally strong: Patrick Stewart (channelling his inner Heisenberg) plays against type to quietly menacing effect as the venue proprietor; there’s a brief but memorable showing from Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair as a white power lacky facing a crisis of faith; and Imogen Poots ditches her wholesome girl-next-door look for a Ben Sherman shirt, green bomber jacket and Chelsea haircut.

Saulnier might have been tempted to add a sublayer of social commentary here – perhaps something concerning American gun culture or the media stigmatisation of certain music and youth subcultures – but this is a lean, undemanding popcorn movie and better for it. At times it feels like too clean a kill, as if Saulnier has set out to remind us of the flair and resourcefulness that previously marked him as an exciting new voice while operating safely (though not rigidly) within the conventions of genre filmmaking.

Green Room, then, is a stylish and riotously entertaining work, but not a marked progression in career terms. Having seemingly found his groove in the low-budget backwoods of American indie cinema, it will be very interesting to see where Saulnier goes from here.

Published 18 May 2015

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