Sunday, April 17, 2016

GREEN ROOM Is a Hardcore Punk Rock Midnight Movie Thriller


- With his first film, Blue Ruin, director Jeremy Saulnier made himself known as a major new voice in movies. Blue Ruin took the same sort of retro, minimalist, slow-burn aesthetic that's become all the rage in the indie horror sphere, and applied that same sort of vibe to the revenge thriller. The result was a unique film that mixed understated, low-key, pitch-black humor with bursts of brutal violence. Now, with GREEN ROOM, Saulnier takes that same sensibility and cranks it up to eleven. Where Blue Ruin sometimes felt like a director still, to an extent, finding his voice, GREEN ROOM feels like the work of a creative voice now fully-formed. The film is a master-class in cinematic tension - a hardcore, uncompromising midnight movie that will make you laugh and gasp and clap. It's pure cinematic rock n' roll.

GREEN ROOM hits you with an instant-classic exploitation film premise: punks vs. Nazis. The film begins by showing us the rough-and-tumble road life of a young and hungry punk rock band called The Ain't Rights. After a planned college-town gig falls through, the band takes a chance by accepting another gig at a backwoods punk club somewhere outside of Portland. They're warned that the club caters to a certain type, but it's not until they arrive on the scene that they see that it is, in fact, a haven for neo-Nazis and skinheads. The band, feeling extra rebellious, decides to play a cover of The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks %$&# Off.” The bottles that get thrown at them are a portent of things to come. As they prepare to leave the club after the gig, the band stumbles onto a murder scene. And suddenly, they're in way over their heads - unwanted witnesses to a crime, and the targets of the violent sect of neo-Nazis that use the club as a headquarters and recruiting base.

The movie takes its atmospheric cues from legendary cult movie masters like John Carpenter and Walter Hill. Most of the film takes place in a select few locations, but Saulnier makes the most of those confined spaces to build tension to crazy levels. When the violence comes, Saulnier pulls no punches - he makes GREEN ROOM into a blood-spattered, gory battle of wills. But what keeps even the quiet moments interesting is the care the movie gives to make all of the characters have depth. The violence always means something - we have some investment in all of the characters, big and small, hero or villain. The members of The Ain't Rights all feel fleshed-out - and each, in a short time, is given plenty of personality.

It helps that the movie gets great performances out of actors like Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat - both playing members of the band. Imogen Poots is also very good, playing a friend of the initial murder victim, now held captive alongside the band members. The fun of seeing these punks backed into a corner is that they must now channel their fearless, rebellious stage personas into a real-life, life-or-death situation. The punks are forced to dig deep within, and see if they can translate their on-stage bravado into real, actual, courage in the face of danger. The movie has a lot of fun with that duality. It's not ragging on the punks or calling them out as poseurs - instead, we're made to root for them to be the badasses that their hardcore music makes them out to be.

Of course, the icing on the cake here is that GREEN ROOM casts the great Patrick Stewart as its Big Bad - the icy, manipulative club-owner who also happens to be the enigmatic, cult-like leader of the white supremacist gang calls the club their base of operations. Stewart kills. He tones down his usual Shakespearean grandiosity in favor of a much more slithery, serpent-like performance. His character, Darcy, is a sadistic dude prone to bursts of rage, but also a guy who can turn up the charm when need be - as he does when he initially tries to persuade the members of The Ain't Rights that he's on their side. Saulnier is definitely having fun having Stewart play against type. He's also having fun with showing how these despicable neo-Nazis - based out of a hardcore punk club - still have all sorts of mundane concerns around money, supplies, etc. Stemming from the Nazism-as-a-business motif is the resigned subservience that Darcy inspires in his underlings. In particular, there's a great performance from Blue Ruin's Macon Blair as Darcy's put-upon right-hand-man - a guy whose evilness is counterbalanced by a certain self-aware sense of "how the hell did I get myself into this?". 

What's remarkable about this movie is that from the moment the punks run afoul of Darcy and his minions, the intensity never lets up. The movie is a nail-biter through and through. And Saulnier makes sure that no act of violence is taken for granted - each is a shocking, wince-inducing jaw-dropper. The action in general just feels raw - there's a you-are-there messiness and a constant feeling of unpredictability. There's also a streak of dark humor that permeates the film - just the right amount. At the same time, Saulnier does occasionally let things breathe, and really makes you feel bonded to these characters. It's all a great recipe for a new midnight movie mainstay - an ode to punk-rock rebellion that feels like the movie equivalent of a balls-to-the-wall punk rock headbanger. 

My Grade: A-

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