Signposts: “Green Room” (2015)
[Green Room is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats. If you haven’t already seen the film, I highly recommend buying a copy (non-affiliate link).]
I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for a good siege film.
Which begs the question: what’s the attraction?
My personality is non-confrontational to a fault, and these are films that subsist on the brutal realities of fight or flight, when flight has flown the coop. Perhaps there’s an appeal to an untapped, festering portion of my “self” that receives an adrenaline rush from witnessing characters who are pushed against a wall and into situations where mortality dangles by a thread. Through the vicarious experience of being forcibly removed from our comfort zone, it leads the viewer to ponder, with true horror, what they would do if faced with the same situation.
To say Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room follows in the tradition of films like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (cops versus criminals) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (humans versus ghouls versus humans) is an understatement. But like those films, which synthesized traits of preexisting cinematic works, Green Room forges its own distinctive path through a neo-Nazi dive bar nestled deep in the Pacific Northwest.
The plot catalyst certainly recalls Assault and Night, with the characters being victims of circumstance. We are led to believe things will turn sour early on for the touring punk band The Ain’t Rights, but it’s not until after they’ve played a defiant set and are on their way out the door, that a simple mistake – a misplaced cell phone in the titular location – leads to a clusterfuck of complication and violence. Recall how Carpenter used a father’s act of vengeance on a gang member to bring violence to a group of people completely unrelated to the act, thus forcing a collection of cops, criminals, and clerical staff to stand tall in the face of seemingly limitless odds.
But perhaps the example that springs most prominently to my mind is David Fincher’s Panic Room. While Carpenter and Romero gave their characters free rein of police stations and farmhouses, Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp keep the action about as confined as the title. Any departures from the room involve our protagonists getting out to retrieve something (a cell phone) or the bad guys getting in (to unlock the contents of a safe). Circumstances are such that our mother-daughter protagonist team is forced to hold inside the shoebox-shaped refuge, but even the supposed safety of the room is no guarantee that bad things won’t happen regardless. More so than Assault or Night, Panic Room carries a palpable sense of claustrophobia (despite Fincher’s innovative stylistic cheats where the camera goes through walls) and desperation, something that is depicted to even greater effect by the forced confinement the characters in Green Room experience. It’s worth noting that the villains of both films come from working-class backgrounds, and are invested in their illegal actions out of a sense of commitment (whether moral, ethical, or financial, it paints them in the same light as a 9-to-5 clock-puncher).
The atmosphere of dread in Green Room is established from its first scene, wherein a tour van wiped out in a cornfield leads to a quick dissection of First World maladies: in particular, an empty gas tank. While the low-on-gas trope is one of horror’s favored standbys (done best in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Saulnier presents this in a very matter-of-fact way. There is tension between the disparate personalities that comprise the band members, but the simple act of filling a gas tank becomes a signifier of economic malaise, positing the Ain’t Rights on the “have not” spectrum of America’s ongoing wealth debate. Calling AAA isn’t an option, so band members Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) – in one of the film’s very few laughs – ride a bike to a local skating rink to siphon gas. Pluto (Michael Berryman) did the same thing to a group of waylaid suburbanites in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
This sequence is handled in a very matter-of-fact way (Sam tinkers on her phone while Pat grudgingly pedals), with a sense of contempt-through-familiarity that Saulnier conveys without dialog. Between the shot composition and the quirkiness of the image itself, it reminded me of the three-brother bike ride from Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, which depicted characters on a search for spiritual and interpersonal satisfaction, in hopes of banding together as more than just blood relations.
But what of Green Room‘s roots in films that use neo-Nazis as antagonists? As I mentioned in my review over at Crash Palace Productions, Saulnier delves into subtext by not announcing a heavy-handed racial or political agenda. While many critics have praised American History X, beneath its visceral shocks lies a front-to-back journey of personal discovery that, downbeat ending aside, speaks to a sense of redemption that Green Room is ambivalent toward. Which is why I think a better cinematic reference point is Geoffrey Wright’s brutal take on race relations in Australia, Romper Stomper.
In that film, Hando (Russell Crowe) has an innate charisma and commanding demeanor that complements his tendencies toward remorseless acts of violence. There is so little regard for the exploits of law enforcement that the turf wars in Romper Stomper take on a surreal sheen, and the fighting tactics are primitive and crude. While Hando embodies the characteristics of a sociopath, he also has moments that convey legitimate humanity. This conundrum is part of what makes something like Romper Stomper linger in the mind’s eye. In Green Room, Patrick Stewart portrays the aged club owner, whose soft-spoken demeanor carries a wisdom that has perhaps come as a result of his own past transgressions; he orchestrates actions with the cold calculation of a businessman, and is capable of getting his small group of “true believers” to do whatever is required (from faking a stab-wound to cleaning up bloodstains to committing murder). There is also a sense of grandfatherly nuisance that affects his own dealings with club patrons who can’t exhibit self-control. Throughout, the neo-Nazis at Stewart’s command are given their own moments of doubt and defiance while still maintaining a follower mentality.
Near the end of Green Room, the two remaining survivors – Pat and club patron Amber (Imogen Poots) band together to fight off their adversaries. But first, there is a several-minute reprieve in which Pat recalls a story about playing paintball against a group of Iraq War veterans, stating how they were playing “real war.” It’s an essential scene that foretells the remaining action, which brilliantly echoes Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Complementing the use of earth tones he’s employed throughout the film, Saulnier has his characters dressed in camouflage and pea-green coats, and have drawn on warpaint in black Sharpie. When Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) arrives at his final destination – the compound of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) – the disintegration of the latter’s sanity forces Willard to take action. The character is not presented as a cliched Hollywood hero; nor is Kurtz an easy-to-loathe, cut-and-dry villain. These same textures and complexities bleed into Green Room, where the actions of our protagonists blur the line between survival and sanity. Unlike Coppola’s stylized approach to action, Saulnier’s final showdown is sloppy in a realistic way, with characters inexperienced in the act of killing operating on motives of survival and, when they see the mangled bodies of their friends laid out on the road, vengeance.
In SLC Punk, our protagonist Stevo (Matthew Lillard) frequently breaks the Fourth Wall. After going to a show that ends in a police raid, he converses with the lead singer of ECP (Extreme Corporal Punishment). Much to Stevo’s surprise, the singer states he will never play a show in America again, on account of the country being “too violent.” Early and often, Green Room pushes the parameters of its R rating, and speaks to our current climate of violence being the favored form of cinematic escapism.
And finally: Green Room contains the most innovative use of a couch since Brian De Palma turned one into a vessel to transport a corpse in 1973’s Sisters.