"Green Room" Is A Thriller For The Ages

The music-thriller is having a moment. The subgenre that came roaring to life with 2014’s “Whiplash” returns in “Green Room,” Jeremy Saulnier’s hotly anticipated follow-up to nouveau revenge favorite “Blue Ruin.”

If “Green Room” adds up to little more than its logline – a young punk band squares off against a bar full of white supremacists – it hardly matters. It’s a great logline, one that its 38 year-old writer-director relishes in taking to its extreme. While far less cultured than Damien Chazelle’s aforementioned drumming pic, the two aren’t as disparate as they seem on paper. Each is ferocious in its own way, using a musical backdrop and sheer ear-splitting volume to deliver thrills.

Unlike “Whiplash,” “Green Room” doesn’t have an Oscar-winning performance in its midst, or a killer finale. But in a market saturated with generic thrillers, it feels like nothing less than a defibrillator to the chest – one that’ll have genre fans falling over each other for repeat viewings.

The Ain’t Rights are a fledgling punk act led by Pat (Anton Yelchin, “Star Trek”) and Sam (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development”). Like most baby bands, they book shows whenever and wherever they can – even in backwoods skinhead bars. The gig at the center of the film sees the four-piece live up to their genre with a defiant performance of an anti-Nazi number in a room full of them. The scene expertly doubles as both jubilant starting point and sinister forewarning, setting the stage for the fireworks to come.

With the band loitering backstage after the show, they unwittingly catch a glimpse of a freshly dead body. The quartet is at once taken captive in the club’s green room while bar owner and head neo-Nazi Darcy (Patrick Stewart, “X-Men”) attempts to cover up the crime – and figure out what to do with the witnesses.

Imogen Poots (“Need For Speed”) plays a crucial role as a friend of the initial victim while Macon Blair (“Blue Ruin”) supports as Darcy’s right hand man, each exemplifying Saulnier’s understanding of his actors. These are not deep characters but they pop off the screen all the same, aided by naturalistic dialogue and a lush visual style. Stewart’s baddie in particular is far more restrained than might be expected, making his demented worldview all the more tangible.

The movie’s second half is deadly simple and consistently compelling, rivaling Sam Raimi’s classic “The Evil Dead” in both violence and suspense. Saulnier twists his audience like a guitar tuning peg, up and up and up to an inevitable but unpredictable breaking point. When a string finally snaps, he coolly moves onto to the next one.

Fainters beware – the bloodletting is intense and graphic, accompanied by an absolutely murderous sound mix. Practical gore effects have rarely been so stomach-churning, the sound of gunfire so feral – not to mention an uncommonly great use of microphone feedback that will be a “why didn’t I think of that?” moment for screenwriters everywhere. Saulnier assuredly plays it off like it’s no big deal.

For all the extreme violence at play, the carnage is carefully rationed, making it that much more impactful when the red stuff does flow. The same goes for the punk soundtrack. By not inundating us with either, Saulnier and his team have craftily created a system of supply and demand within their own film, making their pay offs actually pay off.

One-dimensionality is a small price to pay for this kind of combustibility, the kind of short-fuse story where anything can and does happen. “Green Room” isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an exceptionally memorable one, a shock-rock bullet train of a thriller that’s likely to grow in esteem even faster than “Blue Ruin” has. Jeremy Saulnier has arrived.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: April 15, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Screenwriter: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein, Macon Blair, Kai Lennox
MPAA Rating: R (for strong brutal graphic violence, gory images, language and some drug content)