'Green Room' Strikes Visual and Emotional Balances

Jeremy Saulnier's film underscores the basic drives and manipulations of belonging, of social existence.

Green Room

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein, Macon Blair, Kai Lennox, Patrick Stewart
Rated: R
Studio: A24
Year: 2015
US date: 2016-04-15 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-05-13 (General release)
"You go where the characters take you, which is terrifying because these people have no fucking idea what they’re doing."

-- Jeremy Saulnier

"We're not keeping you. You're just staying." Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) looms in the frame, adding "Just relax." That's hard to do. Big Justin, who fully embodies his name, stands before the door of a small dressing room at a makeshift club in backwoods Oregon. He means to block the way for a band that's just finished performing, a band that wants very much not to stay.

They call themselves the Ain't Rights, and as you might guess by that name, they're punkish and anarchic, loud on stage and not always so organized. So far in Green Room, they seem a little hapless, less focused on choices and consequences than on getting from one gig to another. The one they've just done was supposed to pay $350, a lot of money, as they're currently siphoning gas from other people's cars to run their van. Big Justin's assessment of their situation makes their audience -- a crowd of Neo-Nazis, angry and unfriendly by definition -- seem more significant than the artists thought at first.

Here that camera cuts from its low angle on Big Justin to a wider, less intimidating image of the band, including bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), and green-haired singer Tiger (Callum Turner), trying not to look at each other as they gauge what to do next. Behind them, just off screen, is the reason they're feeling especially antsy, a dead Neo-Nazi girl with a knife in her head.

"We gotta go, we gotta go, we gotta fucking go," mutters Tiger, jgging in the back of the shot a few beats later. It's a set-up for trouble, of course, and as you imagine an imminent spiral of bloody mayhem, you might also recall Jeremy Saulnier's previous movie, the effectively unnerving Blue Ruin. In that not exactly conventional revenge story, surprises emerged in characterization, and here again, the battle takes a few turns that you might not expect, even as the mayhem does indeed ensue.

What's consistently striking in both films, though, is how you see this mayhem, by which I mean what's in frame when and how you anticipate or can't quite know what you see next.

This is no easy feat in a film that pits chains-and-Doc-Martens-wearing skinheads against a bunch of scrappy kids in ripped-knee jeans. But even as the predators are well defined and the victims distinctly sympathetic, the movie surprises. This is in large part because of Sean Porter's brilliant camerawork, which makes internal frames formed by car windows or instruments or black-tee-shirted torsos seem at once elegant and inevitable, and mobile frames -- say, the several that track after a massive killer dog patiently padding its way along a long mountain road -- both exhilarating and dreadful.

In striking such balances, visual and emotional, Green Room is transformed. It's a genre picture and also a sly dissection of a genre picture. When Gabe (Macon Blair), the onsite manager, first leads the Ain't Rights through a narrow hallway to the green room before their set, he gestures briefly, instructing them not to leave anything in the hall, because the owner doesn't like fire hazards. After their set -- which they open with the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off", then dismiss the boos and tossed beer cans by pointing out, "It's a cover!" -- the band is in the midst of moving their gear out when they get stuck in the room.

In comes the owner, the wholly imposing Darby (Patrick Stewart), who spends a moment at their locked door, suggesting they come out. They don't and he walks through the hallway, in a tight, dimly light mid-shot, gesturing as he goes: "Fire hazard." The camera keeps back as he leaves, then moves to show what he saw, the band's bass drum, now about to be evidence that they were there.

It's a great grim joke, an indication of Gabe's righteous fear of the boss, Darcy's peeves as well as his utter control of his space and his "true believers", the Neo-Nazis who will do whatever they must to stay in the group, to be on the inside. The desire or the ability to leave the group marks an outsider, and the band meets another inside that room, the exceptionally wise and resilient Amber (Imogen Poots). Knowing too well what's at stake and what the Neo-Nazis' assume and imagine, Amber provides a portal into another world, even as she also reflects, in her stunned expressions and cynical comebacks, the naïvete of her new friends, comrades in crisis.

The film underscores the basic drives and manipulations of belonging, of social existence. Everyone wants to feel part of something, and also to feel free and self-determining. The shifting relationships, in the room and outside of it, reshape your understandings, too, as you come to expect what you might not have before, to rethink the conventions in place. "This is taking too long," observes Darcy late in the film, drawing you up short. Taut and pressing, the film doesn't draw out time, but compresses it. The time you experience is very different from what he or Pat and Amber might experience, a sign that Green Room is creating a world beyond your own, both inside and outside.


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