Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Every time you perform live you roll the dice. It doesn’t matter what you do, there’s always an element of chance to showing up at a live venue. I used to be a stage magician and the amount of times I arrived at a venue and found a workable space, a non-rowdy crowd and no curveballs are written on a piece of paper in a sealed envelope I passed to my assistant before the article began. Live performance of any sort is electrifying and brilliant precisely because of the element of chaos and the tang of adrenalin and fear it puts behind everything you do, and there is nothing more live, more exciting or more dangerous than punk rock.
Which brings us to Green Room and the last gig the Ain’t Rights’ original lineup will ever play.
Jeremy Saulnier’s debut, Blue Ruin, was a tightly compressed, deliberately chaotic piece of suburban noir. The story of a quiet family feud and the loud violence behind it, Blue Ruin remains one of the very best movies I’ve seen this decade. Its raucous, bigger format younger brother makes that list too.
Here, Saulnier plays with an ensemble cast for the first time. The Ain’t Rights are a punk band consisting of singer Tiger (Turner), Jujitsu expert and drummer Reece (Cole), guitarist and manager Sam (Shawkat) and bassist Pat (Yeltsin). They have the quiet, well rounded intimacy of people who live in a van for most of their year and the movie’s opening establishes their relationships with the ease Saulnier is becoming known for. Tiger, at the wheel, has dozed off and the van has taken a right into a cornfield. The good news is that no one is dead. The bad news is that he fell asleep with the engine running. With practiced, sleep deprived ease, Pat and Sam set off to steal gas and get them to their next gig.
The Ain’t Rights get stiffed on their next gig and, as compensation, are offered a spot with a guaranteed payday. The venue is a skinhead club out in the woods and, again, the band find themselves lost in the wilds. The only difference is, this time they only think they know what’s they’re in for.
Saulnier is a filmmaker of extraordinary economy and that works best for him in the opening act of Green Room. You relax into the scruffy, battered world of the band, tense up with them when they realize they’re playing to a Nazi crowd and relax again when they slowly win them over. There’s a taste of the exact shot of adrenalin we all crave and dread when we perform live; walking right up to danger, tweaking its nose and saying ‘…that it?’ The bouncers are even nice, polite guys who seem to sympathize with the band and Macon Blair, the star of Blue Ruin, is especially good as quiet, uncomfortable Gabe.
Then on the way out, Sam realizes she’s left her phone behind. Pat goes to get it and walks in on the next band up, and another bouncer, Big Justin, standing over a groupie with a knife in the side of her head.
Saulnier’s script changes gear each act and if the first is a blunt, punky comedy, the second is a John Carpenter movie. Trapped in the Green Room at gun point, the Ain’t Rights react with the complex self-delusion that anyone would in their situation.
They aren’t being held hostage, they’re just being asked to stay.
They have a gun trained n them.
There are four of them to one of Justin.
Justin has a gun.
The threat, and power ebbs and flows as, outside, the true extent of what’s going on becomes apparent. Darcy, the club owner, has been here before. He has a lot of experience with removing bodies and more with removing witnesses. The band are kept in a holding pattern as every line of support they have is quietly cut off, while Darcy constantly reassures them that nothing bad is happening. It’s a chilling, white knuckle sequence that almost functions as a one off play and at the heart of it is the interplay between Pat and Darcy, played with polite, even saddened restraint by Patrick Stewart.
Yeltsin is an actor who is both blessed and cursed with a baby face. He perpetually presents slightly younger than he is and his most successful work plays off that. That’s why his version of Chekov in Star Trek is so great and it’s also why his turn in Alpha Dog is so heartbreaking. He’s an actor who excels at playing young and vulnerable and that’s just what Pat is. Where Sam is pragmatic, Tiger spaced out and Reece violent, all of which are solid punkish qualities, Pat is too normal. He’s the group outsider, the Ain’t Right who Ain’t Right and his conversations with Darcy all start from that point of apparent weakness.
Darcy for his part is everyone’s genial grandparent. Stewart has been physically incapable of turning in bad work for decades and Green Room is no exception. He’s so plausible and so calm that you believe he wants the best for everyone, even as the victim remains dead, the police are lied to and he picks a group of his finest violent minions to kill them in the worst way possible. It’s a constantly restrained performance that pays off in the subtlest manner I’ve ever seen; a single, venomous racial epithet giving you a tiny glimpse of who Darcy is, not who he thinks he is.
The third act is where things get rough. People die. Lots of them. None of them heroically, none of them slowly and none of them in the way you might think. There are survivors but the characters that do get killed do so in ways that are brutal and horrifically mundane. Someone goes through a window they shouldn’t and gets cleaved and left to bleed out. Another gets their throat chewed out. A third victim falls not because they did something wrong but they did something right. Violence is as capricious as audience appreciation and just as fickle.
The third act is both the cathartic release the movie needs and its weakest point at times. There’s backstory to the murder that gets slightly lost and a sneaking suspicion that Darcy is acting a little too carefully. The film provides a reason for the second in particular and sketches out enough of an explanation for the first for it to work. Nonetheless, Imogen Poots as Amber, the best friend of the victim, gets a little lost in the churn. That’s a particular shame as her blunt, wide-eyed determination and remarkable capacity for violence powers some off the film’s best scenes.
In the end though, these weaknesses are a part of the fabric and I’d argue intent of the movie. Punk is an untidy, energetic form especially when live and Green Room needs a little of that untidiness to feel authentic. And, make no mistake, it does. The tension is constant, the violence is horrific and unflinching and the film has a total lack of normal action movie clichés. Instead, Green Room is a movie that backs its characters into a corner and pushes them until they lash out, kicking and screaming. It’s cinema as mosh pit, backwoods noir with blood on its teeth and sharpie war paint on its face. It’s raucous, untidy, brutal and hilarious. So, for one night only, go see the Ain’t Rights. But trust me, make sure you know where the exits are… 9/10