Green Room is a consummately crafted ultra-violent horror-thriller that should not be dismissed as mere “torture porn”. Working with a slightly larger budget than his previous indie features (the acclaimed Murder Party and Blue Ruin) writer/director Jeremy Saulnier delivers an intense, gruesome, and immensely satisfying experience, worthy of comparison to Toby Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The film centers on a smalltime punk band called The Ain't Rights that takes a last-minute gig at the end of an unsuccessful tour. The band members (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) quickly find themselves trapped in a seedy roadhouse in the backwoods of Oregon, where they witness a brutal act of violence. Cornered in the tiny backstage green room, they must fend off attacks from the staff of Neo-Nazi skinheads and the club’s sinister owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart).
There are a very limited number of plot points and twists available in a cabin-in-the-woods style splatter picture, but Saulnier keeps us guessing and riveted to the edge of our seats. Cinematographer Sean Porter’s dank lighting helps submerge us into this unpleasant world, as does Production Designer Ryan Warren Smith—whose middle name aptly describes the principle set. The claustrophobic space of the title eventually opens up into a series of potential escape routes, each leading to unspeakable dangers. And while there is plenty of welcome humor in this dark tale, it’s never the kind of goofy jesting that can so often undercut the threat in pictures of this sort. There is also logic and simplicity in the way the narrative unfolds that prevents us from shrugging off any behavior as the type of dumb choices that only happen in horror movies.
Like most of the best contemporary low budget genre features, Green Room has a welcome 1980s quality to both its execution and its “executions.” The set-up builds slowly and intriguingly to the inevitable moment that incites the main action, and during that time we get to know each of the participants, pick up a good sense of the world they come from, and gather a clear spacial understand of where they end up. When the scares and the gore kick in, everything is free of CGI spectacle and relies on the kind of old-school practical effects that always feel more authentic and visceral. The script is so tight and the cast so committed to the reality of the situation that we instantly buy into everything we see. Anton Yelchin (best known as Mr. Chekov in the new Star Trek, and also the star of Charlie Bartlett, Like Crazy, and 5 to 7,) plays the sympathetic center of the band. His Pat the bass player has an innocent face that belies a sharp-witted resourcefulness. Imogen Poots (who co-starred with Yelchin in the disappointing remake of Fright Night) brings an unexpected intelligence and a sharp edge to the role of Amber, a scrappy skinhead who quickly becomes an ally of the band.
Of course the big star turn in this picture comes from Patrick Stewart, who delights in playing against type as the diabolical Darcy. Casting the great English thespian in this bloody little American indie is a coup for both the film and actor. Green Room will certainly garner a much larger audience with a star of his caliber on the marquee, and Stewart’s career will get another boost when fans and critics see how well he delivers such an unexpected performance. But Stewart’s presence cuts both ways. As much fun as it is to see him play an evil, murderous white supremacist, we never fully forget that we’re watching Patrick Stewart playing an evil guy while watching Green Room. He doesn’t disappear into roles the way his contemporaries Gary Oldman and Daniel Day Lewis can. In the final analysis, Stewart’s participation is clearly more a boon than a hindrance to the movie, but I can’t help but wonder how Green Room might have turned out with Jim Beaver playing Darcy Banker—or Ted Levine or Will Patton or Clifton Collins Jr. or… (I could go on and on).