This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.
Green Room is a masterful artisanally-crafted suspense thriller.
Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier crafts a loving tribute to seventies horror that feels like a truer successor to the “backwoods horror” genre than many contemporary remakes and reimaginings. Following a punk band named The Ain’t Rights that stumble into a tense stand-off with a bunch of neo-nazis in rural Oregon, Green Room is almost aggressively old-school in its horror sensibilities. It is tense and claustrophobic, paranoid and unsettling. Saulnier has a masterful understanding of the genre and its expectations, crafting a pitch perfect homage.
Green Room is a very canny piece of work, but never in a manner that is distracting. The film is wry without being ironic, more arch than subversive. Appropriately enough, given its punk protagonists, the movie’s hints of cynicism about its genre and set-up bely a more earnest appreciation of the form. Green Room is a classic and conventional horror film about a bunch of kids who took a wrong turn, and it is utterly unapologetic about that. Instead, it commits to providing one of the most visceral traditional horror experiences in recent memory.
Green Room is a nasty piece of work. And is all the better for it.
There is something quite knowing in Jeremy Saulnier’s premise. Horror stories are very much about transposing existing real-world anxieties into fantastical terrors, fashioning society’s real fears into something cathartic. Horror transforms the mundane into the mythical, allowing the audience to confront their nightmares in a manner that can easily be brushed aside once the story is over. This “other” is rendered monstrous, portrayed as something fantastical and uncanny so that it can be explored and even exorcised.
In many respects, Green Room is a very conventional horror films. The protagonists are young adults traveling the highways and the byways of America. Struggling to get by, the group find themselves trapped. Luck and circumstance conspires to put them in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the band making a last-minute change to their plans and accepting a gig in a relatively isolated rural location. There is a sense of conventional horror movie morality at play here, with Saulnier teasing the idea that his characters are meddling with primal forces.
Of course, the primal forces at work in Green Room are not radioactive mutants or flesh-hungry zombies. Instead, the punks find themselves tangled up in heated conflict with a bunch of rural white supremacists. Nevertheless, Saulnier adheres to the rules of the genre. Green Room makes it quite clear that the characters are messing with something vicious and dangerous nestled snugly in the American heartland. Green Room is aggressively traditional in its aesthetics.
However, there is something quite knowing and careful going on beneath the surface. Without the irony popularised by films like Cabin in the Woods or The Guest, there are more than a few hints of self-awareness to be found. For example, Saulnier toys with the idea of the “transgression” rather than committing to it, acknowledging the expectation that horror protagonists are to be punished for some poor moral choice. (There is, as many critics and commentators have pointed out, more than a trace of victim-blaming to this expectation.)
Green Room suggests any number of possible “transgressions” for the group in their journey to the heart of darkness. Does their decision to play before a skinhead crowd render them somehow complicit in what follows? Does taking money from neo-nazis suggest some culpability? Or is it something more than that? Does an impromptu decision to goad those racist thugs from the stage reflect an arrogance and over-confidence, a fundamental misunderstanding or the world into which they have wandered?
Green Room plays with these questions, teasing out the internal logic of the horror genre and the expectations of the audience. Ultimately, Saulnier settles on an ambiguous note that allows the film to have the best of both worlds, to nod at the conventions of these sorts of stories while not wallowing in the unfortunate implications of those tropes. While Green Room teases that audience with the idea that the protagonists blindly wandered into something they didn’t understand, the escalation of their situation is ultimately put down to chance rather than choice.
Saulnier plays with these sorts of expectations and conventions throughout the film, most notably in his decision to cast the villains of the piece as neo-nazis rather than something more supernatural or paranormal. Saulnier literalises some of the anxieties that come baked into horror stories like this, doubling back the level of abstraction associated with pulpy horror to create something of a wry feedback loop. Grounded real-world fears become stand-ins for monsters that were themselves stand-ins for those sorts of grounded real world fears.
In some ways, Green Room recalls the work of Alan Moore on American Gothic or Brian Azzarello on Hellblazer, a reflexive take on the more metaphorical aspects of horror storytelling. Matt Ruff does something similar in his recent Lovecraft Country, a story which channels Lovecraftian horror back against the racial themes already seeded through it. Green Room creates a sense of an ethereal and haunted American space, a wilderness in which evils like white supremacism are allowed to fester and grown like cancers upon the soul.
“This is a nightmare,” one character confesses at the climax, while holding another at gunpoint. “For all of us,” his opponent confesses, exhausted by all the violence and the rage. The opening shot of Green Room finds the band crashed in a corn field, an image that contextualises the film as a trip into the rural American heartland. Largely unfolding over the course of a single extended night, the film almost feels like a journey into the darker recesses of the national consciousness.
Green Room‘s use of white supremacists is not a matter of mere convenience or expedience. It is a conscious thematic throughline that Saulnier weaves across his narrative. The film focuses repeatedly on the power of words and sounds, from the fact that the protagonists are punk rockers through a fleeting mention of a “reich advocacy group.” During one tense sequence, the use of a microphone and amplifier to generate feedback proves essential to the survival of two of the movie’s characters.
More than that, Patrick Stewart is cast as Darcy, the movie’s central antagonist. Saulnier consciously emphasises the actor’s distinctive voice in developing the character. The film waits quite a while to focus on his face. His first scene ends with a shot of Stewart’s iconic bald head shot from behind, while there is an extended negotiation sequence during which the film focuses on the protagonists; Darcy is only heard through the dressing room door, using his voice to control the situation. (His voice proves very effective tool, setting tone and setting terms.)
There is great skill and craft to this, one that makes the choice of neo-nazi antagonists more than mere affectation. Saulnier never labours the point, but Green Room feels like a timely horror film. The recent presidential election cycle has demonstrated just how dangerous words can be, and how those words tie back into a primal anger that sits tucked away just outside the political mainstream. (It should be noted that both the punk protagonists and the neo-nazis of Green Room are archetypes that trade primarily in anger and rhetoric.)
In many respects, Green Room is a very traditional survival horror. It is not explicitly or vocally subversive, reveling in its tropes as much as playing them. Saulnier never shies away from the brutality of his story, creating a palpable sense of dread that builds and builds over the course of the movie, to shocking and unsettling catharsis. Saulnier is never afraid of a visceral scare, but also understands how to establish and maintain tension. Green Room is a superb example of the form.
However, there are all manner of clever artisanal touches that make Green Room feel like more than just a schlock fest. Saulnier repeatedly sets up plot and character beats only to wryly subvert them. All of his characters seem to exist outside of the film itself, with various parties alluding to events and relationships that exist beyond the confines of the narrative. Some of these details are elaborated upon in greater detail; others are left as mysteries shared between friends. (Some are even left unshared.)
It is a very clever scripting touch, one that adds a great deal of flesh to the story without weighing the film down too heavily. The audience is allowed to intuit and elaborate based on the information provided, without bogging the movie down with exposition. More than it, it renders the movie’s scares all the more effective. Characters are killed or disappear without fleshing out back story, a very efficient way of keeping the audience on the wrong foot while still working within what is a fairly familiar template.
Green Room is also a stunningly produced film. Sean Porter’s cinematography makes the movie’s dive bar setting look especially alien and hostile, while Brooke and Will Blair’s soundtrack provides a slowly-building sense of dread that pulses through the movie. Editor Julia Bloch does an excellent job during the film’s tense sequences, helping Saulnier to create a sense of escalating anxiety. Saulnier also demonstrates a knack for framing, often finding a way to position his camera and performers so as to keep the audience off-balance.
Green Room is a fantastic piece of work, and a horror movie well worth seeking out.
I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4