It’s an exciting time to be a genre fan in America. The last few years has seen the emergence of a throng of exciting new indie filmmakers like Ti West, Adam Wingard, David Robert Mitchell, and Jim Mickle, who’ve melded inventive horror or action/thriller elements to a smart lo-fi arthouse aesthetics, resulting in movies like “The House Of The Devil,” “You’re Next,” “It Follows,” and “Cold In July,” among others. But one of the most promising of this new batch has been Jeremy Saulnier, who followed up his ultra-low budget debut, “Murder Party,” with “Blue Ruin,” a nifty, beautifully-made twist on the revenge movie that won over not just gorehounds, but also cinephiles. His new film “Green Room” cements his promise by taking all the strengths of “Blue Ruin” and building on them, while straightening out some of the weaknesses too.
The set-up sees punk band The Ain’t Rights — singer Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole) — reach a new nadir of unsuccessful touring when a gig falls through, leaving them broke. To make it up, the organizer offers to set up a new show near to Portland through his cousin David (Mark Webber) that should put a few dollars in their pockets.
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When they arrive, it quickly emerges that David, the venue manager (“Blue Ruin” star Macon Blair), and most of the clientele are all neo-Nazi skinheads. But a bad day gets worse after the gig when they head into the dressing room to retrieve a cellphone, only to find David’s girlfriend, killed at the hands of one of the headlining acts. Soon enough, the band finds themselves holed up in the green room with a hostage (Eric Edelstein), the victim’s friend (Imogen Poots), and a gun with five bullets in it as skinhead leader and venue owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) gathers his troops.
Aside from the color in the title, and the presence of Blair, there’s another element that gives some continuity from Saulnier’s previous picture, and suggests that this is maybe the middle installment of a trilogy. Like “Blue Ruin,” “Green Room” takes an well-trodden genre — in this case, the “Rio Bravo“/”Assault On Precinct 13“-style siege movie — and gives it a dose of humanity.
Like the protagonist of ‘Ruin,’ our heroes don’t suddenly turn into super humans the moment they’re in a heightened situation. In other words, they fuck up, and they make mistakes, and there’s something entirely winning and unpredictable in treating these characters as real people. It’s just one part of a surprising level of texture to a film so lean (barely over 90 minutes) that gives almost every character, including the villains, a degree of dimensionality.
It’s no mere retread of his previous effort, though. Saulnier doesn’t shoot this time (“Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” DP Sean Porter steps in), and the film has a similar, but crucially different look from the surprisingly lyrical early sections (which also feel truly authentic when it comes to the gas-siphoning reality of cash-strapped band touring) to the neon-strip lit, dark club showdowns.
It’s also just plain better constructed: Saulnier’s terrific script doesn’t rush the set up, taking its time to carefully lay out the pieces (for the most part), and the result is a far more satisfying thriller than “Blue Ruin,” including an ending that pays off. Again, he also knows to ramp up the tension, with some breathless sequences and a slowly-building atmosphere that explodes into some truly brutal violence (gore fans should be throughly satisfied, with two early acts that drew shocked gasps from the crowd).
The film does stumble occasionally — the shifting loyalties of two characters in the third act are lost a little in the frantic action, and Imogen Poots’ character is a little underexplained: she appears to be part of the skinhead movement, but her backstory is a bit of a blank, dismissed with a line something like “I’m not a Nazi.” Just one extra scene would have let her fit in a little more.
It’s certainly not the actress’ fault, as she’s just one part of a terrific ensemble. Anton Yelchin’s the nominal lead, and the film takes advantage of a certain vulnerability that the actor has always projected to amp the stakes up even higher. His bandmates sketch out real people with real economy, while Blair delivers a sort of distant cousin to his “Blue Ruin” lead, very different but with some DNA in common. Stewart, cast strongly against type, makes a terrific villain here, sensibly underplaying.
The punk/skinhead setting is detailed and specific, and, though he doesn’t overplay his hand, Saulnier hints that he’s got more on his mind than just thrills, suggesting that the skinheads are all Iraq war veterans. The result is an exciting, splattery, funny genre movie that somehow never once feels disposable, and one that should prove a midnight movie delight for some time to come. [A-]