Neo-Nazis can sometimes seem like a lazy choice of villain, they might be the easiest group to portray as incontrovertibly bad, and therefore get the audience on the side of whoever they’re up against. This was the main reason why Breaking Bad’s fifth season was a bit of a disappointment to me, to keep you rooting for now drug kingpin Walter White to succeed the writers opted to have him conflict with a group of neo-Nazis so however terrible a person he’d become, you’d know that they’re worse. Now the new thriller Green Room from Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier does indeed feature a bunch of neo-Nazis as its antagonists, but thankfully he hasn’t utilised them just to be obvious, blatant bad guys.
That’s not to say that Green Room is some kind of deep psychological study of extremist ideologies either mind, this is a siege thriller, and wears its genre badge proudly. Instead the function the neo-Nazis serve is more in line with bringing you into an unfamiliar world. The backwoods Oregon bar/club the majority of the film takes place in has the surface look of a slasher horror movie, but the atmosphere Saulnier creates is rendered all the more frightening by how plausible it all is. These aren’t just a bunch of laughable far-right stereotypes; they’re a scary subset of people who most definitely exist.
Further lending to their credibility is the ingenious casting of Patrick Stewart as the club’s owner and the group’s apparent leader Darcy. Stewart, a man who exudes paternal warmth plays that same calm authority to devastating effect here. Upon learning of his role, I thought he might have gone all out and relished his chance to play and over-the-top British villain in the Alan Rickman/Gary Oldman vein, which would still have been a fun sight, but instead he takes it in the other direction, subtly underplaying it as a colder, more calculating presence.
In fact my only real criticism of the film is that Stewart’s not actually in it very much, showing up after the main action has already kicked in. That concerns a young hardcore punk band called The Ain’t Rights, whose members include Alia Shawkat and the late Anton Yelchin. As the film begins they’re coming to the end of a tour through the Pacific Northwest. They’re dedicated to a ‘purist’ punk philosophy so fiercely that they decline to have any online presence or even record their music, believing that it can only truly be experienced in a live setting. The potential naivety of this isn’t lost on Saulnier, who has them in the opening scene having to steal fuel from a parked car as they can no longer afford any of their own. They put on a decent front for their punk cred at first; the fellow hardcore acts they reference both verbally and on their clothing and such are nearly all from long before their time too, a highly credible script choice. However their absolute favourites (or “desert island band” as the film puts it) becomes a vital recurring theme on a few occasions in the film that to say anything more about would be spoilerish.
Short on cash after a gig falls through, they decide to accept the opening slot at the remote club, which is described to them as a “boots and braces” place. At first they decide, in a dangerously brash move, to open their set by covering The Dead Kennedys famous ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’, but later appear to endear themselves to the raucous crowd as Saulnier moves to a more stylish slow-motion filled depiction of their performance. Things aren’t about to get better for them though, as on their way out they inadvertently witness a murder and hole themselves up in the club’s green room alongside one attendee (Imogen Poots) and no apparent means of escape.
Throughout the siege aspect that makes up the bulk of Green Room’s running time, Saulnier succeeds in pulling off a very tricky feat. He manages to make the actions of both the band, and the Nazis entirely believable, while also keeping the events surprising and unpredictable. Neither group acts stupidly, they’re both working with what they have to try and preserve their own self-interests, nor does the film most commendably ever come close to any sort of deus ex machina moment to conveniently solve the situation. This is perhaps best exemplified by the manner in which the club manager defuses the effects if the 911 call Yelchin’s character made; it makes perfect sense in context, but I would never have seen it coming.
As events progress, Saulnier ratchets up the tension brilliantly, punctuating it with sudden, brutal moments of violence that you can really feel the impact, and consequences of. He skilfully utilises the shadowy, dirty green tinged lighting and discomforting sound effects to enhance things further. Amid all this there’s also another eye-catching turn from Blue Ruin star Macon Blair as the aforementioned level-headed club manager who is later revealed to be an even more interesting character.
With Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier has cemented his status as a fascinating new genre filmmaker, and made a fantastically effective thriller that both lives up to, yet is far greater than a reductive ‘punks versus Nazis’ description could entail.