If you’ve read my reviews for any length of time, you’ll be aware that I have a tendency to bring up Roger Ebert’s first rule of movies: “A movie is not about what it is about; it is about how it goes about it.” It’s an essential rule for any serious film fan or cinephile to remember, and one that often shapes my reactions to films. After all, how many action films have the same story? How many YA films, especially these days, mirror the same tropes? But the execution, the way the story is told, the way it’s all put together and acted and filmed – that’s what makes a movie good or bad, ultimately.
Which brings us to Jeremy Saulnier’s tense, unnerving, brutal little gem, Green Room. I’ve yet to see Saulnier’s previous film, the acclaimed revenge flick Blue Ruin, but I’ve been waiting eagerly to see Green Room ever since I first heard the description. Inspired heaving by John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, Green Room follows a young punk band as they find themselves trapped backstage, surrounded by a group of neo-Nazis who are, let’s say, concerned about this band’s presence. And it becomes clear very quickly that the safest way for this to all end, if you were to ask the skinheads, is for all of this band to simply…disappear. Permanently.
That’s a great setup for a film; add in Saulnier’s already impressive reputation and a great cast – most notably Patrick Stewart as the leader of the skinhead group – and you’ve got something that sounds absolutely fascinating and compelling. And all of the early buzz had me even more excited to check it out.
So why did I bring up Ebert’s rule? Because ultimately, what makes Green Room great isn’t the story. The story isn’t much more complex than that general outline I gave you above. Sure, there’s the inciting incident, and there’s one minor revelation that comes about halfway through the film…but really, Green Room is pretty simple. The band is trapped backstage. The skinheads are violent, and armed. The band has nothing. And they need to survive.
In Saulnier’s hands, the tension builds and builds until we just about can’t take it anymore. Saulnier slowly puts us into the life of the band, letting us get a sense of their personalities in a broad sense, the banter, the characterization. In short, he makes us like them – but more than that, we get a sense of who does what in the band, and who might be able to hold their own if and when things go bad. And even once the skinheads enter the film, Saulnier lets things simmer, teasing us with flare-ups and issues, then letting tensions build and people start digging into position. It’s carefully, cautiously paced, and it may lead you to wonder if this is going to be House of the Devil all over again – tons of buildup, no payoff.
And then the knives and box cutters come out.
I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Green Room is brutal, gang. It’s not non-stop brutality, but it’s pretty constant, and it establishes the stakes very, very quickly, and then never backs down. This isn’t sugar-coated violence; people die, and they die real badly, and the efforts to survive end up escalating things in horrific ways that are hard to forget. And Saulnier builds the unease, tension, claustrophobia, and desperation expertly, using the geography of the club, the constant threat, the calm iciness of Stewart’s leader, and so much more to just keep things unrelentingly tense and unbearable, all the way to the end.
And yet, that’s what makes Green Room so effective. Saulnier has a simple but effective story, but the joy – and success – of this film lies in the execution. His cast delivers fantastic performances, all of which convey the threat, the terror, the calm, or the bravado of each character, and adds to the complex game of chess that’s unfolding in front of us. More to the point, though, there’s Saulnier’s careful, effective direction, which neatly established the geography and geometry of the scene, so that we’re always aware of who’s where, who’s got the advantage, and so much more. It’s a simple thing, but one that could easily be this film’s undoing, and instead becomes one of its greatest strengths.
Look, Green Room is genre fare, through and through; it’s a thriller that’s borderline a horror film, and a relentlessly intense one at that. But if that sounds like your kind of film – if you’re up for something that’s equal parts Die Hard, The Raid, and Panic Room – you’re going to love this thing. Nasty, brutal, smart, and brilliantly made.