The opening aerial shot of “Green Room” soars over the wavy green mass of an Oregon cornfield, before finding a swath through it where a van has swerved off the highway. Inside the van, so shabby you can practically smell the stale beer and B.O., four members of a rough-living punk band, The Ain’t Rights, slowly awake to find that their driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, a common hazard on the overnight slog from one gig to the next. Out of money and gas, the day’s first task is trekking to the nearest mall’s parking lot and siphoning somebody’s tank.
Welcome to the glamour of DIY touring. “Green Room” director Jeremy Saulnier — of 2013 indie thriller “Blue Ruin” — spent his youth in the 1990s immersed in Washington, D.C.’s hard-core scene, and in this movie he gets the millieu right — from the Fugazi stickers and mosh-pit flailing to the politicized views of music and performance, and the complete lack of sexual tension between male and female members in the band.
Saulnier absolutely nails that uneasy feeling of pulling into some dodgy last-minute venue in the middle of nowhere, where all sorts of nutters wander to and fro wasted on any number of substances; not knowing where you’re sleeping or whether you’ll actually get paid, knowing only that your mates have your back, and if all goes well it will be a good set. For The Ain’t Rights — played by Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner, Joe Cole and Alia Shawkat (of the excellent TBS series “Search Party”) — it will not be a good night.
Turned off by the Confederate flag/white-power vibe at the club, they drop a cover version of the Dead Kennedys’ 1981 anthem, “Nazi Punks F—- Off,” with the intention of making a quick exit off the premises. Retreating into the backstage “green room” (as U.S. dressing rooms are called), they stumble upon a girl with a knife in her head and some very angry, very tattooed dudes. When the band tries to call the cops, the situation quickly starts spinning out of control and The Ain’t Rights barricade themselves in the room with bystander punkette Amber (Imogen Poots). There, they are besieged by club owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) and his legion of skinhead boot boys.
Violence at hardcore gigs is a fairly common thing, and more often than not it can involve right-wing skinheads, but “Green Room” takes this to gnarly extremes. This could have been a nasty little thriller along the lines of some Coen brothers work like “Blood Simple” or “Fargo,” where fairly ordinary people are forced to cope, often ineptly, with the snowballing effects of violence. Saulnier, however, seems to have put more effort into figuring out how to kill his characters than develop them. We never get a real sense of who these people are, so emotional investment is fairly low when havoc breaks loose, which is a shame given the talented cast.
There are some pretty grim and graphic scenes involving box cutters slicing flesh and pit bulls chewing on people, and this level of violence nudges “Green Room” from thriller territory into horror/torture porn. It definitely gets your pulse racing, but it will also leave your stomach churning, and believability drops off quickly when a near-severed limb is fixed up with a bit of duct tape. (In reality, the character would have bled out in a matter of minutes.) Real violence is not so easily patched up.
These days, it seems like there’s enough darkness in the world without turning to the cinema for a steady diet of mutilation and pain. You could say it’s to “Green Room’s ” credit that it breaks through our desensitization to violence enough to be truly disturbing — like the films of Gaspar Noe, for example. But you could also say it’s just adding to the problem — more sadistic cheap thrills.