There's nothing a group of musicians love to do more than swap stories about bad gigs. The guitarist got drunk and puked onstage. The promoter was a crook. A brawl broke out. But in the long and sordid history of bad shows, I dare say none comes close to what happens to the punk band the Ain't Rights in director Jeremy Saulnier's new film Green Room.
When we meet the Ain't Rights — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) — their tour of the Pacific Northwest is already faltering. After a disastrous afternoon show at a pizza parlor in Seaside, Oregon, the band figures they've hit rock bottom and decides pack it in and go home. But to get back to the East Coast, they need money, and the pizza parlor gig only paid out $8 each. The mohawked promoter, Tad (David Thompson), feels guilty and sets them up with a show at a club 90 miles away where his cousin works. "Just don't talk about politics, and you'll be fine," he warns.
As with everyone else who has ever told a punk band not to talk about politics, his warning falls on deaf ears. When they arrive, they find that the venue where they're booked is not so much a punk club as it is a white power movement compound hidden in the middle of the Oregon woods. Naturally, they open their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedy's "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," which is certainly the punk thing to do, but not the best choice in terms of long-term survival. Still, by the end of the set, they seem to have won over the crowd and are feeling pretty good about the situation until they return to the green room and find the lead singer of the headlining band standing over a dead girl with a knife in her head.
At this point, Green Room shifts gears from Decline of Western Civilization in the PacNor to a claustrophobic cross between 12 Angry Men and Assault on Precinct 13. Just when it looks like things can't any worse for the band, Saulnier pulls the rug out from under them again. What could be worse than being locked in a room with a murderous, 250-pound neo-nazi named Werm (Brent Werzner) by a pack of eerily disciplined skinheads? How about when Darcy, the leader of the skinheads, shows up, and it's Sir Patrick Freakin' Stewart. Darcy calmly takes command like the evil Mirror Universe version of Captain Picard, and the casual brutality of his evil is bone chilling. He effortlessly throws the police off the scent and proceeds to clean up the mess left on his property with the help of a squad of "red laces," as skinheads who have killed enemies of the movement are known. As the band tries to escape first the room and later the club, they discover the secrets Darcy has been hiding, which explains why he is so eager to wipe out the witnesses.
As you would expect, Stewart's chilling precision is the film's acting highlight. Shawkat as the cool-girl bass player sporting an ever-fashionable Dead Kennedy's logo shirt and Imogen Poots as Amber, a local punk desperate to escape the skinhead underground, outshine their male compatriots, most of whom read as transparent murder fodder or inhuman killing machines.
Green Room is billed as a "horror thriller," and Saulnier, whose previous work was the acclaimed indie Blue Ruin, can throw a jump scare with the best of them. But there's quite a bit of 1970s-era hostage movies like Dog Day Afternoon in Green Room's DNA, so I would hesitate to call it horror. The director's primary concern is ratcheting up the tension, one excruciating turn at a time. His most effective weapon is his grungy sound design that he uses to incorporate wailing feedback as a plot point and the goopy plop of a disemboweling for shock points. The director clearly has a broad knowledge of and affection for this musical milieu, which makes the whole proceedings feel more real and grounded and helps audiences gloss over the occasional logical lapse. Green Room is punk as hell, and it makes me eager to see Saulnier's next outing.