Green Room, the third film by Jeremy Saulnier, finds the director in an exciting place as both a technical craftsman and an engaging storyteller. Yes, it is as intense, if not arguably more so, than his previous effort Blue Ruin (2014); and in places, it can be as darkly comical as his first feature Murder Party (2007), yet it remains unquestionably its own film. It is bleak, claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and bordering on nihilistic. Still, beneath the impressive technical chops that make up the movie’s most easy-to-appreciate points, it is flexing its thematic and intellectual muscle. Like Blue Ruin, Green Room is a film with a straightforward narrative that complements a more significant theme; Green Room critiques the rise of white nationalism in fringe art scenes and cautions against its rise in mainstream politics.
Green Room is the story of a punk band traveling along the northeastern coast who gets a gig. When they arrive at the venue, they realize it is an apparent local favorite of white supremacists. After they successfully play their gig and are about to leave, they discover a dead body in the titular green room. They are told to wait there as tensions build, and desperation begets violent responses and escalated stakes. If I were to reveal any more of the narrative, I would be doing you a disservice. It is worth your time to seek out this movie and watch it unfold before your very eyes.
The acting from this underutilized and under-discussed cast is uniformly strong across all the performers. The bandmates, played by the late Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner, all play their characters incredibly well, bringing great humanity and chemistry to their relationships and interactions. You understand that they have been a traveling band for years and that there is a shared history between the four of them. They have the difficult task of playing characters who never become insufferable to be around while not the brightest in the world. The actors deserve to be recognized for that accomplishment. On the other side of the coin, it is fairly disturbing to see how naturalistically the actors portraying the white supremacists are in their roles.
Patrick Stewart is the actor to whom the press has paid the most attention due to this being one of his very few villain turns. He carries certain weight and menace whenever he is onscreen, always striving to control the situation with a cold and distant apathy. That is not to say that he is not the only actor on the Nazis’ side worth considering, with each actor turning in strong performances, all of which reveal the horrific humanity of the characters. This almost makes what they do worse because you can see how one can relate to these unsavory characters. In particular, Macon Blair, the leading actor from Saulnier’s early films, plays an unlucky man stuck in the machine of white supremacy very well. He wants to advance himself further into the culture but also begins to see its toxicity just before it is too late.
The cinematography, like in Blue Ruin, is economic yet striking. Working with Sean Porter, Saulnier has already proven himself to be a master cinematographer in his own right, with well-crafted shots throughout his body of work; but Green Room may be his best-looking film to date. The way the film uses varying shades of green is astonishing and beautiful. Based on the cinematography alone, the film has a surprising calm feeling that tricks the audience into letting our guard down. In a way, it perfectly complements the horrific places the story goes: if the visuals’ color palette reflected the horror of what was occurring, we might be overwhelmed. With the green color palette, we can process better what we see with something akin to terrifying serenity. It is an uneasy combination that offers something unique to its aesthetic, making it highly memorable.
The film can be seen as a study in culture clash, namely of the two kinds of skinheads. Before Neo-Nazis coopted the term, skinhead was used for British counterculture that widely listened to punk rock. As the subculture grew, the politics of the movement attracted Neo-Nazis. We see in the film the difference and aggression between these two groups, which at first is a subtext that eventually comes to the forefront of the movie. In one of the best scenes in the film, the band performs a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” The scene is funny, intense, and more than a little surreal, and it works to set up tensions between the band and the community they have stumbled into.
Perhaps the most considerable difference, and what could be argued to be the film's central theme, is that Neo-Nazism has been allowed to grow, become organized, and deep-rooted as part of American fringe culture. We have allowed a group that sustains itself by manipulating the less fortunate and economically downtrodden by propagating racial tensions and overt fascism to exist. Saulnier compares how the Neo-Nazis operate and the mainstream conservative power structure. “The elite few at the top give marching orders to those beneath them, using ideology and misinformation to cause division and animosity between those who are ‘fighting the fight’ but unwittingly are serving interests other than their own.”
Green Room further cements Saulnier’s place as an American director to keep an eye on, as well as being one of the best films of 2015. It is a surprisingly layered thriller with societal critique in its sights, but this never gets in the way of the incredibly tight filmmaking. It has been four years since the release of his last film, Hold the Dark (2018), and his next film Rebel Ridge, is in pre-production, so now is the ideal time to marathon his filmography.
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