A perfect fusion of indie regionalism and genre cinema, Green Room centres on a young punk band from Washington as they make their way across the Pacific Northwest. Having travelled from D.C. to Washington State only to find that the local scene appears to have dispersed during their journey, they’re given a tip that a bar deep in the woods is looking for a last-minute stand-in act and decide to do a night’s gig in order to fund their journey back to the other side of the country. Although they’re warned that the bar’s clientele are much “harder” than their usual customers, they’re not prepared to witness a murder in their dressing room, leading to a siege narrative in which the clients of the bar gradually coalesce into a militarised right-wing compound and their leader – played by Patrick Stewart – starts to devise ever more ingenious ways to take off each member of the band before they can escape to safety and report what has occurred.
As that might suggest, Green Room is very much a film driven by place and space, and would be utterly different shot in any other region of the United States. Suffusing every scene with a luminous sheen of blue-green light, full of mist and moisture, Saulnier ensures that the air always contains a touch of gloaming, even in the middle of the day, building a deep and lyrical continuity between the hazy, smoky spaces of the bar and the dusk that settles as the violence starts to mount. Suffused with an eerie crepuscularity that is never quite day and never quite night, the atmosphere is unbelievably mercurial and mysterious, especially because the incongruity between the Pacific Northwest landscape and the Pacific Northwest hardcore never ceases to feel surreal or improbable, lending the entire mise-en-scene a touch of hallucinatory hyperbole and fantasy as well. In many ways, that dynamic contrast drives the wider rhythm of the film as a whole, which tends to alternate between amped-up punky action sequences and periods of cool, liquid naturalism – or, in some cases, both at once, as in a beautiful sequence in which the band’s first blistering set is abruptly subsumed into a liquid, ambient synth score laid over slow-motion shots of skinheads thrashing and screaming.
In that sense, the film offers us the best of both worlds, luxuriating in a loose, ambient, amorphous atmosphere that I think of as quintessentially “indie” but also puncturing it with moments of almost unbearable ultra-violence, many of which only reveal their full import after the fact. In the defining sequence in the film, the lead guitarist – played by Anton Yelchin – keeps a collection of Stewart’s posse at bay through a door, only for us to find out after that they have almost severed his hand with a machete. In this scene, as so many others, Saulnier steers clear of both sustained graphic violence and tasteful suggestion to depict the brutal after-effects of violence in an offhand, incidental manner – much as the characters first apprehend them – that is an object lesson in how to use violence – and how to use viscera – for maximum impact. Given that the film is also utterly unsentimental about disposing of its characters, every sequence feels unbearably high-stake, creating an overwhelming sense of dread and inexorability that sits alongside the indie anomie much as the band’s hardcore repertoire sits against these cosmic forests and mist-covered mountains. In that sense, Green Room appears to have thoroughly learned the lesson of Blue Ruin, which was far less balanced in the way in which it integrated these two stylistic registers, producing an odd, atonal quality that appears to have enthralled many critics, but for me made it feel like an apprentice work, which is also how Green Room seems to treat it as well.
As much as the landscapes might play a critical part, however, it is the hardcore bar where most of the action unfolds that prompts some of the most intriguing scenes and speculations in the film. While redneck horror is nothing new, there has been a move over the last couple of years to envisage a more militarised, organised and logistically ingenious mode of redneck horror, a process that seemed to start some time around the release of Kevin Smith’s Red State. In Green Room, that movement seems to reach its apotheosis, since one of the great twists of the film is how quickly this apparently raucous crowd of backwoods hicks turns into a clinical military compound, as well as an ersatz family, albeit a family which is entirely composed of heterosexual white men. As a result, it gradually seems less like a mere collection of white supremacists and more like a right-wing terrorist cell in the making, built around the kinds of male bonding and ritual experiences that apparently characterise the kinds of kinship to be found in cells in general. While there’s no denying the considerable threat to the United States from foreign terrorism, there’s also a significant amount of homegrown, right-wing terrorism that often stems from just these kinds of white supremacist communities. At the same time, this right-wing terrorist threat is more or less unmentionable in the media, with the right going out of its way to psychologise and depoliticise it, and the left often unwilling to confront its full systemic implications. It’s no coincidence, then, that it has found a voice through the “low” medium of genre cinema, or even exploitation cinema – both Green Room and Red State have strong exploitative overtones, especially during their violent sequences – since genre cinema has typically been a medium for articulating subjugated or disavowed modes of knowledge.
In that sense, Green Room doesn’t finally fuse genre and indie cinema so much as recover the indie spirit of genre and exploitation cinema. Critical to that process is the casting of Patrick Stewart as the compound’s ringleader, since few other actors have the same ability to exude both genre and indie credentials. Although Stewart has acted in some of the biggest franchises of the last thirty years, from Star Trek to X-Men, he still feels irreducibly independent, and more suited to performing in a Royal Shakespeare Production than anything on the big screen, which is perhaps why his appearance in mainstream genre cinema always has such a delightful ring of surprise. In Green Room, that surprise is doubled by seeing him play such a vicious role, and part of the genius of the film is how thoroughly Saulnier reduces Stewart to his voice, since these two sides of Stewart’s persona always seem to revolve around his peculiarly Shakespearean mode of diction. To some extent, Saulnier achieves that by removing Stewart’s character from any direct violent action and relegating him to a series of administrative commands, which he manages to imbue with a deeply elliptical and pregnant quality that suggests vast logistical and financial resources we can only begin to imagine, as well as a detailed plan for future action that, again, gives the impression of a right-wing terrorist cell in the making.
More literally, however, Saulnier orchestrates a number of incredible sequences in which Stewart simply speaks to the band members through the door and tries to exhort them to put down their weapons and come out and trust him. At this point in the film, none of the band members have seen Stewart while the audience have only glimpsed him sparingly as well, with the result that everything avuncular and reassuring about his voice is both emphasised and turned awry, reminding me of John Goodman’s performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane, which in many ways plays as a companion piece to this film. Like Goodman, Stewart’s voice seems to exude rationality, and up until the very last sequence I couldn’t shake off a residual reassurance and trust in his presence that just made the suspense and horror all the more pronounced. At the same time, however, Stewart’s voice felt utterly perfect as the mouthpiece for an American white supremacist outfit if only because of how oddly his Englishness tends to be positioned in Hollywood films more generally. While you could never confuse his accent for American, there is also a sense in which it no longer really feels English and has instead been deracinated into a general signifier of class, discrimination and discernment. Given that white supremacist movements often harbour deep, if residual, attachments to a particularly Anglophilic notion of class, Stewart’s own abstracted Englishness feels weirdly and even comically apposite here to an otherwise uncharacteristic role, with much of the film’s pleasure inhering in how gradually and subliminally you realise how perfectly his presence fits the part.
Of course, there’s an element of hyperbole to Stewart’s voice that always adds a touch of comedy to his roles, at least when they occur outside of the self-conscious fantasy of stage acting and science fiction cinema, and his performance here forms part of a dark vein of comedy that both exacerbates the horror at moments but also provides a temporary reprieve during the most gruelling sections as well. From the very beginning, one of the band’s key mantras is that they avoid any kind of digital promotion in order to purify their music through the sanctity of live performance, and what ensues at the white supremacist venue often plays as a kind of logical conclusion of that stance, as they are exposed to a lifeworld – “right wing, but culturally hard left” – that identifies with their incoherent militarism much more than they ever could. While they seem fairly alternative at the outset, namechecking late 70s punk bands when asked about their Desert Island Discs for a local radio segment, by the time they’ve run the gamut of Stewart’s army they’re all prepared to confess that they’ve really preferred Prince and Madonna all along, falling back on pop after seeing what punk produces when taken as far as it will go. That’s not to say, exactly, that the film is anti-punk, nor that it traffics in the kind of moral panic about punk that nurtured punk in the first place, but that even its most brutal and desperate moments – from both sides – are bound up in a series of deeply satirical negotiations of subcultural credibility that feel like a natural extension and expansion of Saulnier’s own position at the juncture between indie and genre registers. In other words, the film has a slyly self-parodic vein that prevents it ever becoming too contemplative or too sensational, resulting in a self-regulating cinematic vision that is continually and dynamically correcting its own excesses without ever neutralising or disavowing them along the way either, until there’s no distinction between suspense and reprieve, between recovering from one shock and waiting for the next one.