“Shouldn’t we be panicking right now?”
I played drums in a procession of garage metal bands for the final seven years I lived in Tennessee, and, if for no other reason, that period was the unequivocal time of my life so far. Music for us was never the lean existence you so often find romanticized in autobiographies or scene chronicles. We simply didn’t push hard enough. We couldn’t get traction, let alone established, and, instead, just holed up in a humble succession of rooms, writing songs and practicing like our lives depended on it. By the time my first band began playing out, the local scene that I’d found so energizing in my latter days of high school had begun to seriously wane, taking the crowds with it. I never wanted anything more in my life than to be a touring rock drummer, which is why, as the by-product of countless hours of practice time and band meetings and unfulfilled ancillary daydreams over the years, I can relate so strongly to the protagonists of Green Room, a strange but affecting, intriguing but ultimately disappointing, terminally disjointed thriller that takes place in the highly specific, often terrifying, subculture surrounding the underground White Power music scene. These kids, the vagabond members of a DIY punk band called the Ain’t Rights, are not skinheads, but run fatally afoul of some anyway out of a combination of desperation, happenstance, false bravado, good intentions, and good, old fashioned bad luck. The film amasses serious capital in its extended first act, promising both a harrowing fight for survival and a warts and all glimpse behind the curtain at a sphere of belief most people would just as soon pretend doesn’t exist. Had Green Room fully accomplished either of those goals, instead of running first out of interest and then gas, I’d be leading cheers right now. Despite some seriously tense moments, the undeniable sick fascination the film engenders sputters over time. Perversely enough for a movie of its ilk, it somehow becomes less involving the fewer protagonists there are.
The first half-hour or so of Get in the Van, irascible punk survivor/renaissance man Henry Rollins’ brutally unsentimental memoir of his time spent fronting infamous ‘80s hardcore punk standard-bearer Black Flag, is, against all odds, an inspirational tale. Rollins, then a suburban D.C. wage slave in his early twenties, listless, restless, and directionless, was somehow tapped by his favorite band to replace its lead singer, hurling him, unprepared, into a sustained maelstrom of acute highs, monstrous lows, crippling boredom, and explosive personal ennui. Because of my own troubling tendency to overlook the forest for the trees, and because the daydreamer in me wallows in wish-fulfillment fantasies as a hobby, I purposefully listened to the entirety of Van first thing on my fateful trip north to Ohio. And while its rags to more prominent rags story was just as potent as ever, even more so given the circumstances under which I traveled to what I presumed would be the resumption of my own musical ambitions, the real meat of the piece, as ever, lay in its oft-unsettling final two hours, during which a by turns beleaguered and belligerent Rollins first withers then hardens in the spotlight, besieged on what seems like all sides by the hardcore scene’s singularly awful uber-fans, many of whom identified as skinheads, who would routinely spit on and relentlessly hassle him during shows, occasionally even roughing up him and/or others afterward. Having until then only really experienced concerts through a sheltered, small town lens, Rollins’ depiction of racist skinheads as a combination scene infestation and petty, destructive, malevolent fact of life was my first real exposure to the concept, one that lingered in my consciousness when, now seeing extreme metal shows on a routine basis, in cities of close to or just over a million, I’d notice pairs, or trios, or small clusters of overt skins popping up conspicuously within the greater crowds.
We intersect with the Ain’t Rights, a stereotypically snotty, reasonably self-sufficient unit of four living a hand to mouth road existence, as they meander through the Pacific Northwest an undisclosed amount of time into the stepmother of all hardscrabble regional tours. The band sleeps with its equipment in the ubiquitous, Rollins-vintage van whenever it can’t find a fan, ‘zine writer, or show promoter with whom to crash, and pinches its pennies to the point of asphyxia, using the meager proceeds from its most recent show as its sole means to make the next one, and, when insufficient, as in Green Room’s opening scene, siphoning gas out of a sad assortment of beater cars at a local skating rink. When a promised gig turns into a set headlining a desolate diner to a bored crowd of five, the earnest local promoter offers first his half of the take and then a line toward a support role on a far bigger show upstate. Given only vague specifics, the band nevertheless identifies the gig as a potential skinhead show. “Racist?” one asks the promoter, who shrugs him off. “Right wing…well, extreme left, actually. Just don’t talk politics and you’ll be fine.” Now, it’s one thing when a group of skins – you’ll never catch one alone, for obvious reasons – infiltrate an above ground club show. Antagonistic and confrontational by nature, they unsubtly change any room’s energy simply by occupying the same floor, even when merely blowing off steam. When the non-affiliated repay them the same favor, wittingly or not, it’s a recipe for disaster. The rundown hall at the heart of Green Room is a back of the backwoods community center for White Power adherents across several counties, off the beaten path but on police radar, the kind of place from which, if you disappear, the odds are high you’ll stay gone. The Ain’t Rights are properly unsettled at the prospect but press on anyway.
A showy aerial shot unlike anything else in the movie tracks the van as it barrels toward its destiny down a heavily wooded highway that fades away at the far horizon into nothing, calling to mind an almost identical signifier from 2005’s far superior The Descent, where the initial progress of the team of spelunkers into ultra-rural Appalachia, seen from above and afar, was couched unsubtly as a journey into hell. The Ain’t Rights, who, though their instincts reliably point them towards trouble, strike a believable balance throughout Green Room between being appreciably young and not quite having been born yesterday, at least recognize the danger, but proceed with some of the same bravado that allows foreign journalists to occasionally embed with a terror cell for an exclusive interview. The journalist can operate with some sense of entitlement because of international law and loosely-established precedent, but he or she is still under the group’s protection, a gift that can be revoked on a whim. Here, the band is in over its head almost upon arrival, flashing some snide textbook posturing to the unimpressed masses and even opening its set, as if on a dare, with a certain Dead Kennedys cover that is pretty much the last song you should ever want to play to crowd comprised solely of Nazi punks. Still, they almost pull it off. It’s clear writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has some experience and facility with this world, which is to say defiantly low-fi, often seedy, rec center sorts of club and the youthful, troublemaking clientele they can attract, whether those exist on the periphery of real danger, far removed, or way inside. Even at their most awful, the skinhead behavior and motivations in Green Room feel authentic, and, as a veteran of hundreds of shows, though admittedly few in backwater toilets quite like the one here depicted, I found myself emotionally invested in the movie from the jump, though those returns steadily diminished as the scenario unfolded.
The jarring chain of events that leads to the Ain’t Rights – who feature among their number well-traveled actors Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots, plus Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat on bass – suddenly taking hostages and barricading themselves in the club’s dressing room isn’t really worth recounting in this review. Green Room features a fairly original thriller premise and some of the leanest, most effective scene setting I’ve seen in years, so I think it’s worth holding out the details of its final remaining legit surprise to ensure maximum impact. The shaken band begins taking stock of its drastically deteriorating situation, arguing amongst one another, and dealing with a progression of club emissaries, from imposing bouncer, to diplomatic manager (the sympathetic, overwhelmed Macon Blair), to the shadowy fixer with his attack dogs, and, finally, to a through the door showdown with the club owner and de facto father figure for the entire local movement, played with meticulously portioned menace by, yes, THAT Sir Patrick Stewart*. Stewart is simultaneously the most intriguing and most distracting element in the entire movie. I entered my screening well aware of his presence, and of the rave reviews it had drawn from many quarters. I waited impatiently for him to arrive, and, once he did, kept waiting to see what he’d do. Like any good executive, however, he delegates tasks to his underlings and takes a full step back to preserve his clean hands.** Stewart’s trademark booming Shakespearean brogue gets dialed down significantly – I would’ve benefitted mightily from subtitles to help me fully digest his under breath dialogue – but is still prominent enough as an echo. Watching the classically trained theater actor underplay, underplay, underplay, then occasionally explode in anger is a fun exercise. The presence of recognizable actors presents something of a double-edged sword throughout, in that exchanges feel uniformly sharper but nevertheless lack the sense of verisimilitude that might have come along with unknowns in the lead roles. Something about watching Maeby Funke playing bass in a sloppy punk band just takes me out of the scene every time.
*Due to a predominance of young minds in desperate need of molding in preparation for the upcoming race war, any White Power cell worth its salt inevitably has one of these wise paterfamilias figures at its head. For a cinematic comparison, Stacey Keach played essentially the same role to Ed Norton in “American History X”.
**It’s a little genius how Stewart eventually disperses the unruly crowd of concertgoing regulars (“there’s eighty people out there,” complains his #1 sycophant), which, coupled with his cool command of an escalating, increasingly grisly and complicated situation, makes it easy to believe – pardon the incongruent pun – that this is hardly his first rodeo.
Green Room presents such a novel pairing of menace and setting – the film oozes authenticity on multiple fronts and features an unsettling, lived-in ambience – that it helps effectively camouflage how little actually happens. A siege, after all, isn’t inherently interesting in and of itself. There are uncreative hotheads on both sides of the locked door, tempered only somewhat by Yelchin’s manic depression or Stewart’s cold-blooded pragmatism. They bicker and posture and jockey for position. There’s friction and false starts and several people end up dead, then a few more, etc. The escape, when it comes, is actually far less interesting than was the siege. The encroaching skinheads are only truly a threat because of their numbers and the oddity and remoteness of the location. Their underlying Nazi ideology is set up as the film’s predominant threat but is thereafter strangely minimized, perhaps in a concession to the marketplace. Stewart’s character says only one notably racist thing in the entire movie, and even that is an aside he lets slip to a henchman in passing. It seems a ridiculous criticism, but I found Green Room neither mean nor ugly enough. With a frying pan/fire combination this theoretically potent, Saulnier should have been swinging for the fences in the later stanzas instead of refitting tired thriller moves. Indeed, you can see the film occasionally strain against its instincts to play the siege completely straight and rip out something especially lurid or surprising before snapping immediately back into place. I went from being riveted to restless, and, in the late going, found myself simultaneously lamenting the film’s larger inability to think outside the box while shaking my head at its timid, sporadic, halfhearted attempts to do so. As a slice of life exposition of an abhorrent alien culture, Green Room speaks with authority and immediacy, and has ample juice to spare. As a thriller, it definitely has its moments but leaves much to be desired. As straight horror, which, for whatever reason, is what I came in expecting, it is a non-starter. That isn’t meant to be a disqualifying statement, because the film has the bones of a decent thriller within it. I just wanted to like it so much better than I did.
“Green Room” (2016) 2.5/4 stars