If there is such a thing as soulful exploitation cinema, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier is proving to be a gifted practitioner of it. Both Blue Ruin and Green Room bring uncommon sensitivity to pulp material, a thoughtfulness that isn’t usually found in midnight-movie fare. It’s the difference between a film that’s thinking honestly and deeply about, say, violence, and a film in which violence itself is its reason for being.
Green Room, in which a young punk band is held against their will at a backwoods thrash bar, is violent — brutally so. Yet before terror descends, Saulnier offers an unexpected moment of reverie. The Ain’t Rights are in the midst of their set, which isn’t going well — bottles are being thrown, threatening stares are being delivered and a confrontation of sorts seems inevitable. But then they shift into another song that captures the crowd, and the movie itself slips into slow motion, creating a trancelike state shared by everyone in the room. We recall a comment that Pat, the band’s bassist (Anton Yelchin), made early on about performing for a crowd: “It’s shared live, and then it’s over. The energy can’t last.”
Whatever small sense of community is created in that moment, the rest of the movie systematically destroys. After their set, the band returns to the green room to pack up, but stumbles across something horrible that they weren’t meant to see. Confusion and panic take over, during which they find themselves holed up in the room while the club’s menacing owner (Patrick Stewart) issues veiled threats from the other side of the door. The rest of Green Room involves an increasingly gory game of cat and mouse, in which Stewart and his henchmen — who turn out to be organized white supremacists — devise a tactical plan for ridding themselves of their pesky guests.
Both here and in Blue Ruin, Saulnier’s characters are more than modes of action, as they are in most exploitation films. Here, they’re human. Pat, for instance, cries and whimpers while trying to negotiate through that locked door on behalf of his bandmates. He knows he’s doomed and can’t hide it. When a gun comes into play, no one brandishes it with confidence; instead it’s regarded with real fear. As for Stewart, the most terrifying thing about his performance is the way it’s rooted in cool, rational logic. He immediately understands what needs to be done to take care of the situation and calmly orders it — never mind that the order involves sending in a vicious, throat-ripping dog.
Saulnier’s characters are more than modes of action. They’re human.
None of the ensuing violence unfolds in a way that could be described as “cool.” It’s often awkward, unexpected and clumsy. One of the most vicious acts in the film — the slitting open of a belly — happens so irrationally and impulsively that you almost miss it. Saulnier doesn’t linger on the acts of violence themselves, but on the horror that follows.
Much of that horror comes from the sound design, not the visuals. While the band is trapped in the green room, the propulsive roar of the headliners’ set throbs through the walls, threatening to tear them down so that the skinheads pacing outside can come rushing in. Then there is the sickening, slobbery sound of that dog tearing flesh, as well as the piercing whine of feedback that pervades the club when one of The Ain’t Rights places a microphone on a speaker in a desperate attempt to chase the dog away. It all adds up to a cacophony of anger and pain.
Is there a reason to endure this assault, other than to admire Saulnier’s command of craft? I suppose it depends on how much emphasis you want to place on the movie’s racial politics, which exist largely as background. In a year when white privilege and white supremacy are both part of the national conversation (concerning the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, respectively), the fact that the villains here are skinheads carries extra resonance. The Ain’t Rights are aware of the club’s racist atmosphere and don’t entirely approve. But they need the gig and figure if they play the right music and don’t raise a fuss, what’s the harm? Yet Green Room suggests this is how racism breeds: when privileged people look the other way. The Ain’t Rights (and here their name comes into play) are complicit the instant they choose not to actively reject the ideology of the club. In that sense, their early moment of musical reverie is an evil sort of communion, a deal with the devil. What happens afterward — a descent into the hatred and violence on which white supremacy feeds — is perhaps deserved.
Admittedly, none of this may fall in line with Saulnier’s aims, which seem to be more concerned with the dynamics of violence in general. In Green Room, violence is an unstoppable cycle, one in which the infliction of pain always comes home to roost. During the climax, there is a mournful, recurring image of that attack dog, now loose and wandering down a lonely wooded road, its long heavy chain dragging behind. If Green Room is about anything, it’s about where this beast — both bred for violence and cursed by it — finally lays its heavy head.