White Light, White Heat, White Trash
Every time I see a movie, it’s a little like going on a date. Some dates are fine. You have a perfectly nice time, but you know there’s no future. Others are less fine, and you wonder how your date was able to leave the house without accidentally killing others or themselves. But once in a while, you go out with someone, and everything is right. You click with them. You can’t imagine them not being in your life.
Every time I see a movie, I chase that. It’s not like being an addict, where I’m looking to recreate a certain sensation. It’s more about engaging a movie on its own terms. I try to leave my baggage and preconceived notions at the door because it doesn’t matter what I wanted the movie to be, only what it is. I’m looking for an experience, ideally both emotional and visceral. Something with intelligence and a point of view.
Like anything else, if you want to find great filmmaking, you have to be willing to get dirty. You have to go outside your comfort zone. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s third film, Green Room, is an endurance test. It’s a gritty and desperate thriller chock full of repugnant violence. It’s legitimately great filmmaking from a director who is bound to become one of your favorites.
There are some bands that are destined for stardom and success. The Ain’t Rights ain’t one of them. They’re a scrappy punk band out of Arlington, on a tour that’s not going well. The crowds for their shows are pitifully small, and the money they’re making is even smaller. It’s gotten so bad that they’re forced to sneak into parking lots and siphon gas. They’re surrounded by an air of desperation, and the perpetual gloom of the forests of Oregon isn’t helping.
It’s desperation that causes them to make a choice. They choose to take a paying gig, but there are a couple of problems. First, it’s in the middle of nowhere, which is a long way from anywhere. Second, the gig is at a skinhead club. Pat (Anton Yelchin) is the defacto leader of the band, and he truly responds to the neo-Nazis in the spirit of punk by kicking off the set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys Nazi Punks F*ck Off. As you can imagine, the crowd does not see the humor in this.
The Ain’t Rights win the crowd over, mostly by playing loud and fast. They finish up their set, get paid, and prepare to leave. Their bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat) has forgotten her cell phone in the club’s green room. Pat offers to get it, and as he enters the dressing room, he sees the body of a young woman with a knife in her head and two of the club’s regulars standing over her. As the kids say, things have gotten real.
Things get realer with the arrival of Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the club owner and leader of the skinheads. Darcy is calm, intelligent, and methodical, and he quickly decides that the Ain’t Rights cannot be allowed to survive the night. Both sides take steps and try to outmaneuver each other. Casualties mount. People die. Badly.
I absolutely loved Green Room, and there are numerous reasons to love it. Saulnier’s previous film was 2013’s Blue Ruin*, a revenge drama that examines the futility of revenge. It was a quiet and contemplative thriller, and it was the film that truly put him on the map. While Green Room isn’t as cerebral, it’s not meant to be a philosophical exercise. The film is exquisitely crafted, almost like the cinematic equivalent of a good punk song. It starts quietly, the tension inexorably ratchets up, then it explodes in shocking violence. I had a knot in my stomach while watching it, and while I’m well aware that a siege film requires a body count, I didn’t want to see any of the Ain’t Rights get hurt. I liked them.
Audiences aren’t dumb, but too often screenwriters treat them like they are. We see this in terrible scripts where characters spell out their motivations, or an obvious detail is brought up early on that will obviously become an important plot point later. Saulnier is too smart for this, and his characters reveal detail about themselves through action and behavior, the way real people do. He also makes a point of giving all of his characters layers and personality, like Darcy’s second-in-command Gabe (Macon Blair). Gabe idolizes Darcy and wants to be a good soldier. But he’s filled with regret at some of the choices he feels compelled to make.
The cast is just as committed to making their characters human beings. While Pat is a good guy, he’s no hero, he’s just trying to survive. Anton Yelchin has a scene where he’s hurt badly. He screams, cries piteously, and he reacts in a way that a movie hero never would, but in a way we’re all afraid we would. He’s an excellent mix of vulnerability and determination. Alia Shawkat’s Sam is also great, a combination of intelligence and cutting wit.** Imogen Poots also stands out as a white supremacist who’s thrown together with the band, and she’s almost surprised by how good she is at violence.
I think the biggest draw for people seeing this film will be to see Patrick Stewart as the villain. Most of us think of him as either the kindly Charles Xavier of the X-Men films or the intellectual Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stewart is a smart guy, and he knows that less is more. As Darcy, he never snarls or makes grandiose speeches. He’s even-tempered, soft-spoken, and the one time he throws out a racial slur, he does so offhandedly. That’s what makes him intimidating.
I’m ordinarily delighted to see white supremacists get slaughtered, but I love even more that the film doesn’t treat them as cartoon monsters. Like it or not, they’re people who are confused and desperate, trying to latch onto something that makes the world make sense, even if it is utterly wrongheaded. Green Room is savage genre filmmaking, but behind the maulings and murder is intelligence and quiet morality. This film proves again that Jeremy Saulnier is one of the most dynamic and interesting filmmakers working today, and we’re lucky to have him.
*Is Saulnier going to make a color trilogy and follow Blue Ruin and Green Room with Red Rover? I kinda doubt it.
**It’s a great detail that one of the members of the band is a woman, but nobody comments on it.