A deep dive into Jeremy Saulnier’s taut, punk versus neo-Nazi genre piece.
“This’ll be over soon, gentlemen.”
Since its 2015 debut, Jeremy Saulnier’s third film has been equated to cinematic punk rock: loud. Intense. Spontaneous. Brutal. It’s a tight film, with a lean runtime and low-budget look complimenting the enclosed nature of its narrative. But for all its blaring punk and grizzly violence, Green Room is a quiet achiever in more ways than one. Spoilers to follow.
As punk band the Ain’t Rights – comprised of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) – wind down a tough tour, we find them worn out. A last-ditch gig turns hostile. The band witness murder and become hostages to a club of neo-Nazi skinheads, led by Patrick Stewart’s Darcy. One of the film’s biggest strengths is the understated nature of its characters, leaving its two most well-constructed punks standing: Pat, the band’s bassist, and Imogen Poots’s Amber, a stray with bleached-blonde bangs and a deep, unshakable need to fight.
Though Pat is the closest character to a protagonist, he spends much of the first act almost off to the side. Outside of being portrayed by the sorely missed Yelchin, there’s little that makes him stand out – he blends in with his bandmates, even failing to come up with his own “desert island band” while the others run off a list of options. This allows Saulnier to subtly bring him to the forefront of the film. Initially, the Ain’t Rights seem to be on pretty even ground. None of the four members command more attention than the other – they all contribute to the interview early in the film, they all chat in downtime, and they all participate in suggesting moves against the neo-Nazis.
That last point is crucial. Green Room‘s decision-making is raw, aiming for as much authenticity as it can. Once the Ain’t Rights are trapped in the green room, attitudes become volatile: there’s fear, there’s initiative, there’s a push for violence, there’s attempts to sit tight and contain their panic. We see Pat and Sam begin to take a form of leadership as they negotiate with the skinheads through the door. Around halfway through the film, Darcy asks that instead of having Pat and Sam talk over each other, they “elect just one voice”. Sam silently nominates Pat, relinquishing herself. Pat accepts, and with this hesitant (but active) decision, he becomes both the “voice” of the band and the film.
Within the picture, Saulnier and editor Julia Bloch ebb and flow between two modes. The first: long, steady build-up, informed by clear stakes (fight or die); the second: short flashes of violence, painful spurts where flesh is punctured, obliterated, carved up. Saulnier finds the anguish in this combat, using it sparingly to highlight the mutual desperation for survival – the skinheads are just trying to adhere to a plan (as doing so will keep their loose business alive), but the Ain’t Rights are fighting simply to see the sun rise.
The film finds a rhythm in this power play, appearing to push and pull tension as we move in and out of the green room; Darcy and his men return to the door again and again, hiding their dominance behind false pretences (such as telling the band that removing a gun from “the equation” will allow them to leave); then the band start to emerge from the room before retreating, then emerging and retreating again. This means the violence isn’t the continuous onslaught we (read: I) might expect, but a devastating exhibit of things going horribly wrong.
Though plans fail and violence creeps its way into the film, the filmmaking on display doesn’t succumb to chaos. Saulnier’s camera is steady. Sickly greens pervade every frame, perhaps alluding to the unpleasant things to come. On my first viewing, an early scene stuck out as an anomaly: the Ain’t Rights being interviewed about their lack of social media presence. It seemed to be a rare moment of dishonesty on the film’s part, ringing of a hollow desire to return to past traditions. But this is, of course, by design. One could argue that a connection between the Ain’t Rights and the internet would’ve increased their awareness of the skinhead gig, thereby preventing this from ever happening. Their attempt to be purists is a fatal mistake.
The analogue approach, then, is more than a throwaway platitude from the band – it’s integral to the narrative, yet another brief detail that chains Saulnier’s piece together. ‘The punks want raw, in-the-moment madness? Let’s give it to them.’ His dialogue, blunt and without fluff, serves as an interesting addition to this idea; we’re provided little context to the characters of Green Room, giving the film an urgency and uncertainty to match their own feelings. Saulnier is in total control.
This different sense of control carries over to the antagonists, too, as the skinheads assert their dominance through whispers more than shouts. Instead of over-the-top fury, Darcy and his subordinates brainwash white men into a vague, hateful regime without even raising their voices. Darcy himself refuses to acknowledge any female presence, referring to the group only as “gentlemen” (despite Sam and Amber’s very obvious presence). The neo-Nazis’ attempt at calm feels like a contradiction to the music they showcase at their venue: they enforce discipline and evil. It is white, male supremacy, and I imagine if the Ain’t Rights consisted of non-white members, there’d be an entirely different angle to the film all together. But the bottom line: Neo-Nazi rhetoric divides; punk unites.
I won’t lie: I find the music itself aggressive, frightening and exceedingly alien, but my feeling of discomfort actually really works in the film’s favour. It puts me on edge right away, leaving me far out of my comfort zone (though I imagine punk fans have a different reaction). The music is also a vessel for the band’s defiance, microphones used to denounce the enemy in both performance and combat (for this, see: scaring away the dogs). Upon learning who they’re playing for, the Ain’t Rights open their set with a cover of Nazi Punks Fuck Off, but this proves to be a mostly hollow provocation. It does nothing to prevent any harm coming to them. It does little to inject bravery into them. They are utterly terrified.
The terror subsides, though. As Pat is pushed into the film’s centre, Amber too emerges from the corners of the green room. She transitions from an outsider to a part of the unit, enduring as the Ain’t Rights are torn apart by death. And with his friends gone, Pat can no longer question his leadership. He and Amber are forced to adapt to their harrowing scenario. Making decisions together. Acting together. Amber works through her numbness and taps into a kind of wildness, finding a thrill in the film’s third act retaliation. Pat numbs a little himself, but doesn’t relish the violence in nearly the same way. Yelchin makes sure you can hear the shakiness in his voice, brought about by extreme fear and pain, revealing a vulnerability that keeps us attached to him.
Poots, meanwhile, is a star, her harrowed performance acting as a magnet between us and the film. We cannot get enough of her. It’s not an accident that Amber stays alive – as dialogue and Poots’s performance inform us, the character understands her environment and captors. She knows what they can do. She’s witnessed it. In contrast, the Ain’t Rights are hopelessly ignorant of how doomed they are. Pat stays alive not because he’s any better than his bandmates, but because he held on by the skin (David Shreve explores these ideas further in his fantastic piece here). Their victory may be the film’s full stop, but the trauma of the preceding sentence weighs upon the victory.
Green Room challenges expectations. What we anticipate is not always what we are we presented with. We are not given a gleeful romp, but something stripped back to its essentials. The film is so good at this that it’s taken me two viewings to start to get on its level; because a significant amount of dialogue is delivered in hushed whispers, a home viewing with subtitles and rewind capabilities proves far more satisfying. If you weren’t too impressed with this – or have lost it in a sea of others – I encourage another look. Feel its energy. Take note of its textures. Resist the evil, embrace the aggression and strap in. It’s going to be a long night.