Thursday, May 12, 2016

Holiday in Oregon: Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room

Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin, in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room.

Horror stories have a long history of using seemingly bland, everyman characters as their protagonists: the college sorority girls (Black Christmas), the nice, normal family (Sinister, The Amityville Horror), the young attractive co-eds (Until Dawn, The Cabin in the Woods). There’s no denying that the formula works. Seemingly “normal” characters not only serve as an anchor in the unpredictable, swirling insanity of horror movie plots, they also force us to consider the absurdity of “normal people” through the revelation of some inevitable character flaw (e.g., both Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, or Jason Bateman in the sorely underrated 2015 thriller, The Gift); they’re the quintessential blank canvas upon which filmmakers paint any number of issues, hang ups, or dark pasts.

Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller (Murder Party, Blue Ruin), does not do this. Instead, Green Room takes the time to open on atypical characters and establish a story for them, independent of the madness that follows. The Ain’t Rights are a punk band composed of singer Tiger (Callum Turner), bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek Into Darkness), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame) and drummer Reece (English actor Joe Cole, Skins). They’re the model of punk life, living out of a van, siphoning gas to get around, and crashing at random promoters’ homes as they take their act on the road in search of good times and a handful of cash. As their tour hits a dead end, an acquaintance hooks them up with a gig at a Nazi skinhead roadhouse in rural Oregon with the assurance that, as long as they don’t talk politics, doing a show there should be just fine – should being the optimal word, here; as we can tell from the trailer, obviously things do not proceed in a manner even vaguely resembling “fine.”

After riling up the skinhead audience with a ballsy rendition of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” the Ain’t Rights return to the titular green room to retrieve their equipment, inadvertently stumbling upon a fresh murder. Saulnier and the cast collaborate successfully to make this the film’s big “WTF” moment. The horror and confusion that come out of nowhere, in the middle of the band’s totally mundane experience of packing up, getting paid, and heading out, is almost comedic in its absurdity. The band has no idea what’s going on, we have no idea what’s going on, and the sense of disbelief giving way to ever increasing panic is palpable. Suddenly Pat’s cellphone is being confiscated in the middle of a 911 call and frenzied bouncers are waving guns. In addition to cobbling together a dynamic and interesting group of protagonists, Saulnier also manages to infuse his villains with an abundance of character. Bouncers Gabe (Macon Blair) and Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) are as panicked by the situation as the band is and watching them struggle to regain control is profoundly entertaining. The perfect storm at the heart of the film’s main conflict feels every bit like a bad trip at a wild party, like everything was just fine, until, in the heat of the moment, it suddenly wasn’t. What follows is a messy stand-off between the band (and the murder victim’s bestie, Amber, played by Imogen Poots), who barricade themselves in the green room, and the neo-Nazi club patrons who want to exterminate them for being unfortunate witnesses to a crime they can’t afford to have publicized.

Patrick Stewart and Macon Blair in Green Room.

A pack of rabid, racist thugs is scary unto itself but their capacity for generating fear is amplified exponentially when, as we saw with the original Nazis, they have a calculating, psychopath madman to rally behind. In Green Room, the psychopath in question happens to be Sir Patrick Stewart himself, in a rare turn as a villain, playing club owner and implied drug lord, Darcy. Stewart is subtly terrifying as the film’s big bad, harnessing all the qualities that make him so darned likeable in both fiction and real life (the soothing voice we inherently trust, the warm smile, the sense of command and control he exudes) and applying it to his role as the devoted patriarch of a group of deranged punk criminals that are perpetually ready to maim and be maimed. Stewart’s Darcy has all the ruthlessness, slick bald guy style, and unfeeling genius of a late series Walter White (Breaking Bad), if Walter White were also incredibly racist.

While the performances are unanimously good, the plot lacks momentum in some places as escape attempts are hatched by the band only to be repeatedly thwarted. Similarly, the introduction of story elements and characters that ultimately prove to be red herrings is, on the one hand, incredibly frustrating but also, on the other hand, indicative of a hilarious sort of irreverence for storytelling that is just so appropriately punk rock. In these moments of de-escalating tension, Green Room succeeds as a dark comedy where it completely fails as a thriller. Bearing that in mind, its sporadic use of shock gore is perfect for its weird hybrid genre; not for the faint of heart, gore is graphic when it occurs without being gratuitous in its frequency. One of my favourite aspects of the film is that deaths occur suddenly and without much fanfare. It’s storytelling anarchy: predicting who gets the axe is damn near impossible and no one is safe from machetes, surprise shotgun blasts, or attack dogs (a caveat: without sounding too uptight, the use of Pit Bulls as throat-tearing murder weapons left me feeling uneasy when the breed already faces enough unwarranted stigma). The warped humour, unabashed violence, simplistic plot, irrefutably evil enemies, and small setting coalesce into a classic B-movie which is perfect for the subject matter, as stripped down and authentic as punk has always tried to be.

Fans of horror will appreciate the fresh take on an ancient and sacred subgenre, but fans of horror and punk are in for an even more rewarding experience due to the added bonus of copious, well-utilized punk culture references that I largely didn’t understand but a trusted friend assures me are brilliant. Green Room’s punk scene is rich, permeating every aspect of the film without being exclusionary, making it a layered piece of tasty garbage with ample rewatch value. Catch it in theatres while you can, though – Green Room is even “punk rock” in its distribution, receiving a limited release in North America with minimal capitalist propaganda marketing.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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