Tension is a difficult thing to master in movies. One of the biggest problems I had with Hardcore Henry was the fact that it was basically non-stop violence with nothing holding it up. You can’t start a movie at full blast, just opening up with murder and carnage, because you have nowhere else to go. It’s a problem of pacing, and it’s one that a lot of movies run into, especially from people’s first few movies. Figuring out story structure can be very difficult; finding a way to make it flow in a believable and natural way isn’t easy. You need to figure out how to build to the climax. Some movies can work at an escalated tone for most of the run-time, but it’s very hard. You need to find a way to sustain the tension and the interest in the movie; otherwise it becomes a boring slog. You wouldn’t think it, but a movie like Hardcore Henry where you have nothing but crazy violence can get exhausting and dull, because that’s all you’re seeing. But last weekend I got to go see a sneak preview of a new movie called Green Room, which is director Jeremy Sulnier’s second film, and it’s a serious master class in tone, pacing, and story structure. This movie is great. His previous movie, Blue Ruin, was an incredible experience, tense and full of mystery that really kept me guessing the entire time. So of course I was going to be excited when I heard he had a new movie, with a higher budget, and with some big actors in it. And even more excited when I heard the basic premise of a punk band fighting neo-Nazi’s while trapped in a club. That’s such a strange idea, but it had a whole lot of potential. And boy did this movie deliver.
The plot is incredibly simple, but in a pretty elegant way. We follow a punk band from Virginia as they’re struggling to accomplish a tour in the Pacific Northwest. There’s Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner), and things are pretty rough for them. They’re living in their van and just touring around, hitting whatever shitty clubs and gig they can get. They go record a radio interview at a dude’s apartment before going to a gig that they don’t realize has been cancelled. And besides setting up the great gag of them trying to raise up their punk credentials when the guy asks them their Desert Island Band, we learn that they’ve come all this way for nothing. But the guy does have some good news, because a cousin of his goes to some punk club out in the woods outside Portland, and could probably get them a gig. So they head off, and are immediately put off by the weird feeling this club in the middle of nowhere has, probably because it’s painfully obvious these guys are white supremacists. They play a very awkward set where they play “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off” by the Dead Kennedys, which doesn’t go well. But when they’re done they still get paid and are about to head out, when Pat realizes they forgot their phone in the green room, and he runs back to grab it. Only to find that the band waiting in there has just committed a murder, stabbing a woman in the head. And since they’ve officially seen too much, shit hits the fan.
They get barricaded in the green room as the guy running the club, Gabe (Mason Blair), does his best to control the situation. Pat had managed to call 911 briefly and report a stabbing before his phone was taken away, so the cops end up showing up, only for Gabe to pay two stupid kids to stab each other and take the blame. And with the cops taken care on the rest of the concert-goers are asked to leave, along with the band that actually committed the murder, and things start getting serious. The owner of the club and head of the neo-Nazi movement, Darcy (Patrick Stewart putting in a hell of a performance) shows up and immediately starts getting crazy. He calls in some psychotic dudes who wear red-laces, which I gathered means they’ve killed before, and a guy who raises pit-bulls for dog fighting, because he isn’t messing around. Meanwhile, our protagonists, along with a girl named Amber (Imogen Poots) who is a regular at the club and was friends with the murdered girl, are freaking out, trying to figure out what to do. They fight off the bouncer that was put in there to keep them in line, even getting his gun, while also trying to find a way out. But everything goes out the window when Darcy shows up, and it becomes clear that he’s going to do everything in his power to kill these kids.
And what follows is a ridiculous series of events as these band mates struggle to escape this damn club while Darcy sends wave after wave of psychotic punks and attack dogs to kill them. People die on both sides, we get several fake-outs where it seems like the tides are turning for either side only for something ridiculous to happen and wipe the slate clean as we get some of the most disturbing effects I’ve ever seen. This movie is brutal. And since this article will be coming out before the movie gets a wide release, I’m going to kind of break my usual format and not really get into the exact specifics of the end of the movie. But let me tell you, it’s great. It pays off beautifully, and the ending is a weird joke like a punch to the gut that led to the whole audience applauding.
This movie was so good. The central premise is one that works really well. It’s kind of Die Hard-esque. A group of protagonists trapped in one location, doing everything they can to fight off bad guys. It’s a simple idea, but it’s one that worked beautifully in this movie. The acting all around was great, especially Patrick Stewart who was doing a fascinatingly dark and menacing performance unlike anything I’ve ever really seen from him. Punk isn’t exactly my type of music, but all the music in this movie was great, and did a lot to add to the frenetic chaos that this movie embodied. But the thing that worked best for this movie was the tension. Like I was saying earlier, this movie was a master class in tone and tension. The last half of the movie is a lot of crazy fighting, brutal violence, and gory effects. But it was all earned. It was earned from the first half of the movie that set up the existential dread of being held captive in a place you can’t escape from, that you aren’t familiar with, while dealing with the knowledge that you may have to do something horrible to survive. We see all the characters struggle with this realization, coming to terms with the fact that they may have to kill to survive. And they reach that realization at different rates. It wasn’t like they all immediately decided they wanted to be action heroes and wanted to start murdering some Nazis. It was realistic, and showed the disgust and dread the characters felt as it became more and more evident that they were going to have to compromise their principles and take lives to save their own.
So yeah, this was a great movie. But there was an aspect of the movie that didn’t really click for me until after it was done. Part of the sneak preview that I saw had an interview with Sulnier once the movie was done. And while talking about some of the themes he tried to put in the movie, there was one that really worked for me. Learned behavior. It was incredibly simple and obvious, but handled so subtly that I didn’t even pick up on it until he said it. But it’s really a defining part of the picture. All the character are kind of putting on airs, trying to be something that maybe goes against them. The band mates are revealed at a certain point to not be as hard as they claim. In their interview they talk about how much they love being punks, and how they don’t want to sell out, and how much they love obscure bands, but then when they realize they might not make it through the night all of their facades break down, and they admit they love Pricne and Simon and Garfunkle. They aren’t badasses, it’s just their job to pretend to be. And when confronted with actual danger and people who actually would kill, they freak out. Hell, even most of the white supremacists are revealed to be cowardly and just pretending to be tough. The manager of the club, Gabe, goes through a lot of changes through the movie, letting his tough, poser-Nazi façade gradually fall apart. Hell, even the brutal pit bull becomes a happy dog when not being told to kill. People aren’t inherently evil. We can get molded and changed, either by ourselves or others. Humans love to be accepted, and will do some terrible things to do so, and the most interesting part of this movie, to me, was seeing these carefully constructed personalities and facades fall apart when faced with real danger.
Green Room was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, and distributed by A24 Films, 2016.