The main takeaway of the film Green Room is simple: There are few situations more hellish than being trapped for 16 hours in a music venue by a gang of murderous neo-Nazis in the Oregon backwoods. The story follows the members of the hardcore band The Ain’t Rights—Pat, Tiger, Reece, and Sam, whose lean names befit their means. Low on gas, money, and energy, the band reluctantly agrees to one final gig, the catch being it’s at a white-supremacist club just outside of Portland. The musicians aren’t thrilled, but at least Pat (Anton Yelchin) recognizes what may be the only upside to their situation: How often does a band get the chance to cover the Dead Kennedys song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” in front of a crowd of actual Nazi punks?
But the fun doesn’t last: Minutes after their set ends, the band witness a brutal crime and realize their odds of getting home have just dropped dramatically. The venue’s owner, Darcy (played by Sir Patrick Stewart), mobilizes his most devoted foot-soldiers to take care of the outsiders. What follows is a tense gore-fest, one that’s as grimy and claustrophobic as the titular room. But scrape off the scum, and you’ll find Green Room full of visual artistry, dark humor, smart writing, and glints of humanity. The film’s bleakness and B-movie trappings won’t appeal to everyone: The violence reaches demented heights, and having the antagonists be neo-Nazis may come off as lazy storytelling. But there’s a cool, macabre charm to the whole effort. In short, Green Room has all the makings of a cult classic—one likely to find enthusiastic fans sooner rather than later.
Saulnier’s third feature film, Green Room bears many of the same sensibilities and characteristics as the director’s first two works, 2007’s slasher comedy Murder Party and the infinitely improved, Kickstarter-funded drama Blue Ruin, which was the indie success story of 2013. The latter—a Coen Brothers-esque tale about a man seeking vengeance for his parents’ murders—revealed Saulnier’s deftness at both writing dialogue and cultivating silence, at knowing the exact moments to hold back or to let the action spill forth. On the surface, Green Room has more in common with Saulnier’s messier debut, but it retains the cinematic flair and self-assuredness of Blue Ruin.
Green Room is very much the kind of film where each new development seems to dare the audience to think, “Well, it can’t get any worse than this,” before proving them wrong. As the full weight of their situation begins to sink in, The Ain’t Rights grow increasingly desperate, making dumb decisions as often as they make smart ones. Green Room keeps total hopelessness at bay, though, by making everything feel like a puzzle to be solved.
Saulnier doesn’t rely on character backstories or arcs to build empathy—he operates entirely on the assumption that seeing ordinary people trying to beat extraordinary circumstances is enough to make viewers care whether they live or die. A risky approach, but it works, turning Sam, Pat, Reece, Tiger, and their new companion Amber into audience proxies. It’s easy to care precisely because of how un-special they are. The realistic, often clumsy ways they try to outsmart the latest machete-wielding maniac or killer dog inspires white-knuckled viewing or a nauseated groan when things go wrong.
The film wouldn’t have worked half as well without the stellar performances of its cast. As Pat, Yelchin (Alpha Dog, the Star Trek reboot) lurches between defeated and defiant, and turns out to be the closest thing the band has to a leader. Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later, Frank and Lola) is unreasonably charming as Amber, the band’s new ally, and Alia Shawkat (yep, Maeby Funke from Arrested Development) plays up Sam’s levelheaded cool amid chaos. The skinhead lackey Gabe (the delightful Macon Blair, Saulnier’s longtime collaborator and friend) goes about fixing his boss’s problem as though it’s just another crappy day at the office. Meanwhile, Stewart takes a Gus Fring approach to his role as the neo-Nazi leader—trading a louder caricature of evil for quieter, matter-of-fact menace.
After a certain point in the film, it becomes clear there are only a couple possible endgames. But despite the apparent narrowing of options for the film’s heroes, Green Room delivers one little surprise after another and maintain its frenetic pace. There are much-needed respites scattered throughout, too. The camera occasionally leaves the harshly lit, industrial interiors of the venue to sweep over the soft lushness of the Oregon outdoors. And there’s a good supply of black comedic moments, deadpan retorts, and scenes that become just absurd enough to defuse the ever-building tension. (“I can’t die here with you,” Pat tells Amber at one point. “So don’t,” she replies.)
Saulnier revels in every part of his film—the minimally stylized violence, the hardcore soundtrack, the vulnerability and resourcefulness of his characters—in a way that suggests a deeper personal connection. Indeed, after a screening in Washington, D.C., Saulnier talked about growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, making zombie movies in the streets and later becoming part of the punk-rock scene (The Ain’t Rights are from the nearby city of Arlington). The crowd was filled with old friends, family, and acquaintances, many resembling the tattooed or mohawked or leather-jacketed characters onscreen. A strange tenderness comes through in Green Room, as if the film were a kind of love letter from Saulnier to his younger days.
The movie’s raw appeal, though, stands on its own. Green Room doesn’t traffic in symbols or deeper meanings. There is only survival and death, and the film reminds audiences of how productive the tension between the two can be without much narrative decoration. While queasier types should stay away, fans of gritty siege movies or stripped-down horror will probably find Green Room to be one of the more memorable movies of the year.