Belting out the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F Off” in a neo-Nazi club without missing a beat, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room cuts through backwoods molasses malevolence with anarchic glee. Following in the spirit of Saulnier’s similarly titled 2014 thriller Blue Ruin, the definitive ethos of Green Room is low-hanging menace interrupting a scruffy, scrappy semi-comedy with violence that is even shaggier. Genre interrupted by genre is perhaps a Saulnier trope now, but it’s not as contorted and overburdening as that might suggest. Instead, the tone of the film is one of doodling in the margins, adopting the underwire of a nasty-minded rural grotto and sketching circles of wonderfully quotidian detail and character within the mode.
Even though the early goings aren’t horror in the literal sense, they still drip with broken-down Americana and unfulfilled dreams barely clinging to their death throes as the only conceivable thing to hang to in the first place. Watching four-piece DC hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights, composed of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Tiger (Callum Turner), Sam (Alia Shawkat), and Reece (Joe Cole), scour a vacant limbo of Upper West Coast rural landscape evokes a semblance of an open-air dungeon. An impromptu gig – any gig, regardless of pay, location, or as it turns out, ideology – is a reprieve. For a while, the tone is out-of-the-frying-pan, into-the-fire indie gutter with all the three day stubble of a wonderfully unrefined independent cinema look into the barely subsisting hope of these four youths, each stews of burn-out and desperately-trying-to-fire.
Their lives are amalgams of the frugal and the forlorn, exercises in finding a reason to continue another day in a receptacle of lawless, disrobed pastoral landscapes filmed with a startling scruffiness and a laconic instability by Saulnier, casting dank interiors as one new hell to escape from the exterior world of endlessly stretching fields devoid of any mystique. Their lives consist of wiling away the day as nomadic wanders fighting the good fight of punk authenticity decades after the DC hardcore scene was a legitimate social force. Now, the band is as tattered and strung-out as their half-fictive dreams of punk serving as a communal threat once again, rather than simply a haphazard quasi-collective dispersed throughout the world (its modern-day fate). The genre of punk stands in this film as a once-totem now sculpted into an effigy for a dying community.
The motley crew also siphons gas from parked cars in a reflection of harsh pragmatism that is about to be tested and outmatched by a much more insidious, unwavering harshness and pragmatism in the form of a cabal of neo-Nazis who own and tenant The Green Room, another in a long string of ephemeral two-hour stopovers and brief tenancies for the band, hoping to rock, roll, and rinse and repeat in a new location the next day. Unfortunately for The Ain’t Rights, the possibly masochistic nature of their commitment to the punk lifestyle is about to be met and anted up by a force of sadists. A fish-out-of-water story where both groups (the band and the neo-Nazis) are united in disheveled, tenuous community, this exercise in cinema of subtraction doesn’t so much stoke a fire of violence as slow everything to a simmering boil of short-fuse chaos. The interpersonal dynamics of this band, a motley crew of social outsiders, are thrown into contrast by a much more organized subaltern enigma.
An enigma that Saulnier dedicates himself to throwing into the light, exploring the neo-Nazi community not as some mystical expressionistic nightmare but an everyday hellhole in this homespun horror film. Rather than fueling the batty recesses of Saulnier’s mind, the reservoir of hate in Green Room are bracingly everyday constructs expressed in the everyday clutter of Confederate flags adorning the walls (and inscribing themselves in the fears of the band) and swastikas scrawled all about. The sublimely matter-of-fact mise-en-scene of the film awakens a topography of hate as well as the wonderfully quotidian geometry of backwoods life. The ideologies in the film aren’t capital-T Things so much as facts of life, a cross-hatch of vaguely topical identities grounded in the tactile, guerilla warfare not so much of maintaining your identity as staying alive. The enormity of the situation singed by pragmatism, Saulnier’s film suggests the way that ideology is a dialectic of, even a rumble between, dogged persistence to a vision and a more jerry-rigged connection with other humans just to find some collectivity at any cost.
For the latter parts, Saulnier’s dominion is casually intimidating, especially embodied in Patrick Stewart, the leader of the reactionary pack, who plays the vile Darcy as a bored, curmudgeonly, did-I-get-out-of-bed-for-this morass rather than a baroque, rococo menace. His lair is a rust bucket of a bar that matches his oily negative energy with gusto, and Saulnier’s film enjoins us to wander the halls with grisly, cramped spaces that circumscribe egress as the camera engages in the give and take between the sides while retaining a clinical distance that disarmingly paints the violence in sober, unvarnished strokes. Rare is the film that matches Green Room for the interplay of full-throttle forward motion and subtle, unfocused understanding of the minutiae of background life and physical space behind the narrative, with location invisibly structuring our pathways for life and narrative within it.
Even the comic filigrees, the film’s human ammunition, are crestfallen and disturbed here, right up until the conclusion where a weary punk-lifer and a neo-Nazi splinter are washed up, baked in the morning sun, and given little recourse for potential futures. Along the way, there are many casualties, but the sharpest is the workaday, unpoliticized neutrality and bliss of the band who must trade in their anything-for-a-buck willingness to play to the other side and replace it with an awareness that violence may be the only reprieve from getting into bed with your enemies. On one hand, hate is interbred with everyday life; Darcy’s decree to murder the band members isn’t explicitly the result of his ideological discrepancy with them, but simply because of an accident in turn stoked by ideological disharmony. But the nuancing of hate doesn’t necessarily catalyze the need for a nuanced solution; whatever pitifully human caliber the naturalistic characterizations affords to the hate-mongerers, Green Room also suggests the value of vulgar, vigorous, anarchic blitzkrieg to combat the very Nazis who have nuanced their own hatred only to mask it but not eliminate it.
Which is to say, the naturalism of the villains is their way of treacherously hiding their villainy, with Saulnier’s film ultimately expressing the need to fight the nuancing and color-blindness of right-wing reactionaries (for whom the nuance only hides their beliefs) with rebellious violence untarnished by equivocation or waffling. While Saulnier suggests schisms and splinters in the neo-Nazi group, they are all forced to sleep in the bed they made in the end; egress is denied even the neo-Nazis themselves, figures who are “human” but not excused from the company they keep, whether they truly, covetously believe the ideology or not.
Fittingly then, Green Room is a primeval film, a sense of omnipresent mood dripping down into a situation filling it with sweat-soaked milieu that eliminates the need for anything resembling a twist or a turn in the story; raw filmmaking is so omnipresent here that narrative complication would be a distraction or a misapprehension. It isn’t a work with a clean, swinging rhythm but an intentionally odd, patchwork, rust-bucket amalgam of spitfire kineticism and lurching, cemetery-like lethargy. Like a forsaken lightning-bolt infected with malarial sickliness only to reawaken itself, Green Room is a combination of the punchy and the jaundiced, of festering nuance and overjoyed, impious escape from the nuance of simply biding one’s time in the neutral zone of life where equivocal dispassion becomes inaction. The film’s low-slung, down-to-earth thriller elements catalyze a shocking mixture of lived-in naturalism and hot-fire screed where the authenticity of punk – the ferocious, brazen, full-throated, defiantly not-nuanced energy originally lost on the band – renews itself and returns like a phoenix to disrupt the casual hate that still brews in society.