It’s the state of the film industry in 2016 is that any independent director with even a hint of talent or vision gets snatched up by a giant studio to begin working on $100 million dollar blockbuster movies where they have almost no agency over how the movie will be made. They are just names to be used for marketing rather than actual filmmakers for these gargantuan projects. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) and James Gunn (Slither, Super) were gobbled up by Marvel to direct The first two Avenger movies and Guardians of the Galaxy respectively. Gareth Edwards (Monsters) got pulled on board to direct the terribly mediocre 2014 Godzilla flick (thank god Toho have taken the Godzilla IP back). Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) helmed Jurassic World and is expected to direct Star Wars Episode IX. Marvel almost had Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End) in to direct Ant-Man, but when Wright fought to have creative control over the film but when the Disney owned movie factory refused to budge on the subject, Wright told them to fuck off and left the project.
Since this odd trend of taking independent, relatively low budget creators and sticking them in charge of movies that cost three times more than the GDP of the polynesian island nation of Tuvalu and thinking everything will be okay seems to be picking up steam, I worry that some of my favorite directors will get swept up into this chaos and won’t be able to work on projects that they are really passionate about. One of those directors is Jeremy Saulnier, director of one of my favorite movies, Blue Ruin.
Saulnier’s most recent project is Green Room, a punk rock bottle-movie thriller starring the late Anton Yelchin and the indomitable Sir Patrick Stewart. The plot to Green Room is very simple. The Ain’t Rights, a young, down on their luck punk band get a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar in the Pacific Northwest. They need the money badly, so they decide to play, get paid, and get the hell out of there as soon as possible (not before souring a few skinheads’ days by tearing through the hardcore classic Nazi Punks Fuck Off). On their way out after their set they witness a brutal murder on premises, and therein lies the main conflict of Green Room. The Ain’t Rights want to go home, and the neo-Nazis want them dead. It’s one of those narratives that seem a little too schlocky and over the top, but Saulnier treats it with a bleak, dour seriousness and intensity that keeps the audience from suspending their disbelief or losing immersion as the film chugs along.
Green Room follows Saulnier’s mono-colour stylings and great cinematography from 2013’s Blue Ruin. When shooting a movie that takes place almost entirely in one location, you need two things to keep it interesting: a driving narrative, and engaging visuals. It’s far too easy for a bottle movie to become a boring, cliched mess if the plot doesn’t keep things interesting. The stakes need to get raised higher and higher if the audience is to stay engaged, and making your movie look pretty doesn’t keep eyes off the screen, either. While Green Room is intense, I think Saulnier kind of showed us his whole hand rather early on. Our main characters witness a murder and consequently have their lives threatened by vicious neo-Nazis. Where do the stakes go from there? Are the skinheads going to kill the Ain’t Rights even harder? Sure there’s a minor revelation partway through the movie as to why Darcy, the owner of the club is adamant on leaving no survivors, but past that, we don’t get much narrative movement.
The visuals, while great, feel like a step down from those in Blue Ruin. Saulnier’s last effort had the expansive Deep South of the United States for the camera to play with, with beautiful exterior shots on the country and city to float across the screen. Green Room on the other hand tries to accomplish all of that but with dingy hallways and grimy rooms instead. Green Room is about as good looking as it could have been all things considered, I think I’m unjustly comparing it to Saulnier’s last project.
The thing that Saulnier absolutely nailed in Green Room was the punk aesthetic. The main characters four out of five of which are in The Ain’t Rights, played by Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, and Callum Turner feel like real punks. Real hardcore kids. I’ve known a lot of people who are in or who have been involved their region’s punk scene, and while this is definitely a generalization, a lot of these people are dark, calloused, and flawed. The characters in Green Room are anxious and pessimistic, they believe the world is against them. Poots’ character is cold and standoffish. She’s clearly built up a wall around herself to try and keep herself safe and secluded by the nasty world that has clearly betrayed her before. The drummer of the Ain’t Rights has anger issues that are apparent from the beginning of the film. These are imperfect people, real people, who act like they were pulled straight out of any hardcore scene. Jeremy Saulnier definitely has a love for this subculture, and it shows. The immediate immersion into the hardcore lifestyle that Green Room puts you into is a credit to the director, the writer and the cast, all of whom are firing on all cylinders and nailing their marks all through the film.
I’d like to now address the award winning elephant in the room. Earlier I said that Green Room also stars Sir Patrick Stewart, and you might be wondering how a $5 million dollar independent movie could afford him, and afford him to play a neo-Nazi gang leader of all things. I couldn’t tell you how Saulnier got a hold of Stewart (other than the fact that he doesn’t have a ton of screen time), but holy macaroni is he good as Darcy. Sir Patrick Stewart kills it as a cold, calculated gang leader who is about ruthless efficiency and his own twisted sense of honor over being a violent gangster. That’s what his mooks are for. He won’t get his hands dirty, he’s above that. Stewart really brings an absolute level of commanding authority to the character of Darcy that I think would be lost if any lesser actor tackled this role.
Overall, Green Room is a tight knit, stylish thriller with some great cinematography, believable acting and a real, visceral punk vibe to it. I feel like the only thing that’s holding me back from enjoying this film as much as I can is that I’m constantly measuring it up to Blue Ruin, which is a little unfair on my part. Green Room is currently on Canadian Netflix, and I despite the couple small hangups I do have about the film, I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes single-location thrillers, hardcore music, or even horror fans. It’s bloody, it’s witty, and it’s unique. This isn’t a movie that could be made by a major studio or mainstream director today. This is an indie film through and through, and Jeremy Saulnier deserves to be lauded as one of the best independent directors working in this day and age. At the very least, check it out to witness Sir Patrick Stewart’s acting chops in a completely new light, and to see one of the last few movies that the late Anton Yelchin has worked on.