(Warning: The following article contains light spoilers for Green Room.)
True suspense relies upon relatable, empathetic characters placed in believably dangerous scenarios. The thrill of tension comes from immersion into the atmosphere of a setting. When that setting has character, and the protagonists within it evoke genuine empathy, the result is a truly nail-biting experience. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room achieves this suspense by evoking an impressively accurate depiction of the punk scene, a topic whose previous silver screen portrayals often range from gag-inducing embarrassment to cartoony at best. Saulnier creates a familiar sense of place for any who have been involved in punk, and twists a feeling of nostalgia to create a horrific nightmare.
Green Room follows the story of a four-piece punk band from Washington, D.C. (Arlington, VA technically,) on their tour across the United States. From the jump, Saulnier does an admirable job portraying the slogging of a band on tour, desperate to scrape enough gas money together to make it from gig to gig. Anton Yelchin leads the cast as Pat, the band’s relatively mild-mannered bassist. Yelchin, in what is tragically one of the final roles of his career, sells Pat as the film’s main protagonist and the audience’s surrogate; he’s typically the first to declare that, “this is fucked, man.” Yelchin’s joined by Alia Shawkat’s Sam on guitar, Joe Cole’s Reece on drums, and Callum Turner’s Tiger on vocals. Together they make “The Ain’t Rights,” a motley crew of characters whose traits seem instantly familiar. Between Tiger’s green hair and anarchy stick n’ pokes, Sam’s laid back demeanor, and Reece’s natural tendency to turn to aggression at a moment’s notice, the band fills all the conventional roles of a punk rock ensemble.
From the moment we are introduced to the band, they are already in a place of desperation. Strapped for cash and in a run-down van plastered with familiar band stickers, “The Ain’t Rights” siphon gasoline to continue the next leg of their tour. Along the way, they crash with the promotor of their next show, Tad. After a night of partying, Tad conducts an interview to be premiered on a college radio station and printed in a zine. The scene, while dipping dangerously close to corny territory, (particularly when the band makes their stance against social media), allows for some fun dialogue reminiscent of late night talks with friends about favorite bands. Some punk favorites like Iggy Pop, Poison Idea, and the Misfits are mentioned as the crew discusses their choice for a “desert island band.” While lines like, “I don’t think I want to be in my seventies still listening to Minor Threat,” may feel a little cheesy, the interview does well to establish a feeling of nostalgic familiarity. The characters here are just ambiguous enough to feel reminiscent of the type of folk you might find shooting the shit at a house party or basement show, and serve as stand ins for likely acquaintances.
The interview is cut short when Tad reveals that an overabundance of bodily fluids at the last show has left him unable to continue booking at the community center. His tale of vomit and fecal matter is a familiar story of shows getting shut down by cops or veteran’s halls no longer welcoming “aggressive music” after a window gets kicked in. Tad’s character is your typical grease-ball promoter, complete with a 12-inch Mohawk and promises that never quite seem to pan out. He’s the guy who’s always got a back-up plan, and offers “The Ain’t Rights” a consolation gig at a Mexican Restaurant to make up for the cancelled show. For anyone who’s played or attended a last minute relocated show, the scene at the Mexican restaurant is likely to bring sharp pangs of embarrassment. “The Ain’t Rights” play their brand of noisy punk rock to a sparse handful of patrons who barely outnumber the members of the band.
When the ill-fated show reaps a meager payout, the band finds themselves desperate for cash to fill their tank in order to continue their tour. Without some sort of funds, their run is effectively over. They are all but ready to throw in the towel and siphon their way back home. This desperation is a feeling likely familiar to anyone who’s hopped in a van on a lengthy tour, where a single show can often make-or-break it. An off night, broken down van, or stolen equipment can doom a small act on tour. Just when it seems all hope is lost for “The Ain’t Rights,” Tad, the ever-resourceful promoter, offers another consolation gig that could save the day.
He’s got a cousin who can hook the band up with a gig that’s close by and guarantees a solid payout. Just one catch, though: the venue is run by a gang of Nazi skinheads.
It’s here that Green Room is most effective in laying the groundwork for an effective thriller. From the moment the band arrives at the venue, they are clearly not welcome. Tad’s cousin is a dick from moment one, the band is labeled with the misnomer of “The Aren’t Rights,” and nearly everyone present seems intent on staring a hole through our protagonists. The inherent anxiety of an unfamiliar venue in a remote town that’s part of a scene you clearly are not a part of is pervasive throughout the bulk of the film and incredibly effective at establishing tension. While a wholly Nazi-run venue may be a slightly exaggerated example, the discomfort of feeling out of place at a show is painfully relatable. This is especially true within punk, a scene that is an idealist refuge to all manners of misfits and outsiders but often becomes regimented to a clique-based structure. It’s easy to feel like an outsider at a show that’s out of your comfort zone, especially one largely populated with tight-knit locals. At the Nazi venue, the band finds themselves in over their heads at a place that evidently does not take kindly to newcomers. For those involved in punk, or any sub-genre for that matter, the tension felt by “The Ain’t Rights” the moment they step foot into the venue is intimately and personally relevant.
Green Room firmly establishes a sense of place with a venue that is immediately recognizable. The walls are covered with stickers and graffiti, and every corner is host to a collection of empty beer cans. The venue evokes a typical punk bar, with dingy lighting and a PA that constantly blares familiar tunes between sets. Green Room presents a familiar place and twists it into a hostile one by adorning the walls with swastikas, SS symbols, and confederate flags. This subverts a space that is likely a source of comfort for anyone involved in the punk scene and transforms it into a house of horror. By the time the violence kicks off and the members of “The Ain’t Rights” become hunted by Nazi henchmen, bloodthirsty dogs, and a bone-chillingly cold and calculating Patrick Stewart, I was fully enraptured by the film’s atmosphere. A lifetime of attending and playing shows just like this one left me feeling a strong sense of empathy for the characters and the danger they were immersed in.
From there, the film becomes a gripping thrill ride propelled by disturbingly realistic violence that comes suddenly and without warning. For the remainder of its brief ninety-minute run time, the film maintains a very present sense of danger that does not lift until the final moments. It preys upon a very specific sense of nostalgia that introduces horror to a setting familiar to anyone with a close relationship to punk. It uses the tensions and anxieties inherent to that sense of place that for many will hit very close to home.
Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.