Words by Patrick Dunham
Green Room is indeed about Neo-Nazi punks and hostage situations – yet the latest thriller from director Jeremy Saulnier goes beyond that straightforward premise to reflect on power dynamics, all the while retaining its protagonists’ humanism.
In Saulnier’s own words at a recent advanced showing on the University of Oregon campus, “low concept, high execution” narratives are the ones worth their salt: he sheds all the embellishment sometimes imbued in the thriller and horror genres, working instead and to great effect within the film’s bare-bones, skeletal structure.
Green Room is a new variation on a familiar horror theme executed ad infinitum: when a punk band plays a show at a rough-and-tumble Oregon venue, they are held within the green room. Pandemonium ensues with a crunch and a bang.
People who’ve seen Saulnier’s last film, Blue Ruin, are aware of his proclivity for astounding violence, but its effect is not for shock or repulsion. Rather, it’s to convey just how warped chains of command or deep-seeded, artificially-imposed structures can be, in this case found within contemporary Neo-Nazi society. Most of the narrative occurs in the so-called “green room” found in most any venue, a place that typically serves as a zone of R&R and free drinks for entertainers away from the ruckus of the stage.
What sets this apart from the slew is Saulnier’s singular vision emerging through the grime and the blood. He delicately weaves humor in the most harrowing of situations, “making sure that when there is a life lost, we all have a bit of reverence for it,” as he puts it. His influence from Carpenter, Peckinpah, and most singularly Scorcese’s Taxi Driver could not be more apparent in Green Room’s brilliant fusing of the visionaries’ stylistic and thematic elements.
Spoilers aside, the venue holds more than meets the eye and the narrative quickly shifts to violent horror with a single swipe of a machete. The band must escape, but the general manager has hired a “fixer-upper” (in the exact same vein as Pulp Fiction‘s The Wolf) to tie up loose ends. This megalomaniac – played by a foreboding Patrick Stewart – commands a squad of Red-Laced, white supremacist executioners who utilize pitbulls, shotguns, and machetes to hunt the band members who have seen too much. They are only partially successful in this, and their throne of blood is vehemently challenged.
What sets Saulnier apart from his contemporaries is his propensity for realism: he is passionately against introducing any “injective monologues, false backstories, contrived intra-conflict,” or any kind of deus-ex-machina in order to artificially propel the narrative forward. For example, when the idea to escape through the air vents emerges within the band, it turns out that they are regulation size and thus impossible to squeeze through. They don’t bring it up again. When characters point guns at each other, it is not an empty ploy of defense, but – as when one character walks away from two trained guns and is promptly rectified – a legitimate threat.
To help create this immersive atmosphere of terror, Saulnier says he “marries special effects and make-up with performance” and “grounds his actors in the choreography”. Indeed, his third feature has the highest budget yet, to the effect of a power of a ten higher than Blue Ruin. This was secured through the star-power of Patrick Stewart as well as other top-notch actors like Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin. All of this reflects Saulnier’s shift from independent – in the strict, industrial sense – filmmaking to unionized, larger scale productions.
Green Room’s most poignant moment occurred when a pair of skinheads intimately lock shoulders, one taking the fall for a 911 call about a stabbing by being consensually gashed by the other. It is a moment of disturbing intimacy in which the devotion of this cultish, violent group to please the overseer rings clear and demented. It was one of those rare moments in which you forget where you are or what you are doing, and instead, all that exists is the moment and that thrilling feeling of butterflies rustling around in your stomach.
After the film Saulnier and producer Neil Kopp shared a few anecdotes about the production – ranging from buying two-acres of corn to ensure the filming of a future scene to the construction of the movie’s intricate set, located on Oregon’s very own Mount Hood. When I asked Saulnier if his next project would have a color in the name, he responded that he is trying to work away from that titling process — but that “it might have a shade.”
Green Room hits theaters April 29.