One of my biggest horror movie pet peeves is when characters die from making incredibly irrational, stupid decisions. Not when a character is stressed and freaks out, but when a character is a genuine idiot. I hate when that happens in movies because 1) most people aren’t that stupid, 2) convenient stupidity for the sake of moving the plot forward is the height of lazy, contrived writing, and 3) that shit isn’t scary.
I’d rather watch a movie where the characters are smart but woefully unprepared for the nasty situations they find themselves in. Helplessness is always scarier than stupidity.
And that’s why, despite my natural avoidance of super-gory horror, I really enjoyed Green Room.
In this film, characters die horrible deaths because they are outmatched. Their best efforts to survive just aren’t good enough, which is terrifying and awesome material for a horror movie.
Green Room follows an obscure punk band on their first tour. Things haven’t been too profitable for The Ain’t Rights (looooove that band name!), made up of Pat, Sam, Reece, and Tiger. Desperate for money, the Ain’t Rights take a gig at a Neo-Nazi club in the middle of the Pacific Northwest.
Punks and Nazis? What could go wrong?
Their set goes well enough, with both sides on their (mostly) best behavior. But things take a hard right into hellish territory when the band stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad. The punks swear they won’t tell anyone about the dead girl they found. They’ll take the secret to their graves. And the Nazis agree on that point, because they haven’t built their heroin empire on being merciful. Scared shitless, Pat, Sam, Reece, and Tiger barricade themselves in the club’s green room. They’re safe, but not for long. Every minute spent huddling together gives the Nazis more time to assemble outside, armed with guns and rabid dogs. The punks realize their only option is to run for it, knowing most of them won’t survive.
As director/writer Jeremy Saulnier put it, Green Room is “a cluster-fuck of eight people stuck in a room against an army of Nazi skinheads.”
I’ve written about this unique kind of situational horror before, and how a film is much more terrifying when it cares to do the work to make characters outmatched rather than stupid. It takes a steady hand and discerning eye to set up a movie this way, and director/writer Jeremy Saulnier possesses both. It was disturbing to watch the situation spiral out of control again and again because I couldn’t help but put myself in the punks’ position. I kept thinking, “I’m don’t know if I could have done anything differently.” And that was a really unsettling aspect of this movie.
Green Room is a smart, taut horror-thriller that goes straight for the jugular in both the intensity of the on-screen images and the disturbing effect it has on its audience. Saulnier accomplishes this with a strong script and excellent direction.
First, the movie does a good job of making me care about the band. A lot of time is spent with them before the action picks up, presenting them as broke, scrappy, somewhat self-absorbed but sincere musicians. Their music may be confrontational and discordant and harsh, but they aren’t. They are trying to share their art on their terms. All they want to do is play music and get paid. They did not go looking for trouble. They want to play their set, get their money, and get out of the club.
So when Pat goes back to the green room to retrieve a cell phone and finds a dead girl, it doesn’t even feel like he made a mistake. How in the world was he supposed to know what was happening? It felt incredibly unfair that these innocent kids would be dragged into a nightmare because of a cell phone. It gives me chills just thinking about it how easily everything goes to hell.
Second, Saulnier has a real talent for balancing terror and horror. While terror is the experience of apprehension and dread before something bad happens, horror is the experience of revulsion and shock when that bad thing actually happens. Saulnier uses both to his advantage, employing his actors, his setting, and his visuals to pull out the tension in each scene and then drop the hammer repeatedly on his audience.
He takes his time building the suspense, parsing out relevant information like a pro. As soon as the punks enter the club, I knew this was a bad, bad place. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There are pieces of Nazi memorabilia and declarations white supremacy scrawled all over the walls. Never a good sign. It’s dark and dank, with harsh fluorescent light flickering in its dark hallways. Everyone in the club looks like a mean sonuvabitch itching for a fight. The punks try their best to be as non-confrontational as possible, eyes down, polite, subdued. But they can’t help pushing a few buttons (by singing the Dead Kennedys song Nazi Punks Fuck Off). That scene, while uncomfortable, wasn’t the breaking point. A wise choice, since I was squirming in my seat, clenching my glass of wine in anticipation, sure that something awful was coming. Which I’m sure is what Saulnier wanted.
Sure enough, the situation disintegrates soon after, and the film crosses into the truly horrific. Those moments of carnage felt being kicked in the face, over and over. Saulnier wisely constructs the brutal violence in way that it never feels overused or cheap but still delivers massive impact. These are genuine gross-out moments (the practical effects and make-up look stellar, by the way). Every one of those moments builds on the story and ratchets up the conflict, so that pretty soon everyone was wondering how the next scene could top the previous one.
Because Green Room is good at managing dread and revulsion, the film was compelling and I could not look away. Everyone in the theater was engaged, squealing and gasping in a curious mix of shock, disgust, and excitement at seeing the gory bits. It was almost cathartic to see the moment of horror after so much tension, and Green Room really understands how to use this pairing to it’s advantage. It was oddly satisfying. I say that as someone who doesn’t usually gravitate to these kinds of movies.
And still, when shit does go down, the tension never abates. Because Saulnier takes such care to set up the conflict and flesh out all the different players, he can jump from horror to horror and his film never loses its punch. He doesn’t have to let the tension go slack as the body count rises. He’s playing with his audience, toying with us, to the point where during one of the more gruesome scenes I was thinking, “They’re not going to show us this, I can’t look don’t make me look—OH SNAP GROSS OH GROSS NASTY BLERGH HAHA I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! GNARLY!”
I had a lot of fun with this movie, if you can’t tell. Despite how disturbing it was.
Additionally, Green Room is visually stunning. It lulls its audience into a false sense of security with its initial shots of serene forests and peaceful corn fields (all lushly green, naturally). Even the grimy and dank bar is beautifully rendered on screen. Saulnier used a real punk bar, and the camera picks up on all sorts of excellent detail. I really felt like I was in that damn bar, and the realism definitely added to the film’s tension. Also, even though I don’t usually pay attention to camera work, but I thought the film was captured with a lot of thought, particularly when it came to the more violent scenes. There were frenzied shots and there were more languid, fixed shots to fully develop the moments of terror and horror.
I would have liked to see a little bit more characterization from the band members, because while the acting was pretty good, I felt like they were all a little flat. I liked them and wanted them to survive, but I didn’t care about them as characters, though I cared about them as people who didn’t do anything wrong. Much of the film’s set up felt like it was more about solidifying their group identity, as opposed to their individuality. I can understand this choice, since you wouldn’t want to bog down the movie with too much characterization and the central conflict of the film was based on a group dynamic, but it would’ve been nice to have more individuality. Imogen Poots’ character was probably the most developed and engaging, but she could have used a little more development. That being said, she was my favorite part of the movie.
On the other hand, I liked the characterization given to the neo-Nazis. Instead of raving evil racist lunatics, a good number of them were very smart and manipulative. like they’ve handled this exact situation before. (Shudder!) They are the kind of horror-movie badies that are real adversaries, precisely because they know exactly what they’re doing.
For those of you eager to see Patrick Stewart chew the scenery, you won’t see that performance in this movie. I was mildly disappointed, but Stewart turns in a great performance. He spends his screen time oozing authority and dominance without having to raise his voice. Unlike some of his henchmen, he is intelligent, well-mannered, and collected, but you just know he’s an evil mofo. You know not to fuck with him, as the others do, and he is rarely tested in this movie.
On the whole, I thought this was a really entertaining survival-horror movie with A+ acting, pacing, writing, and visuals. Despite my initial hesitation, I had fun and I recommend this movie. If you read my blog at all, you know I have a strong preference for horror that aspires to some lofty message. But not all horror movies have to do this, especially if they are as well-made as Green Room. Sometimes, it’s enough to know that shit can turn sour real fast and you may not make it out in one piece, if you make it out at all.