Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier is rapidly establishing himself as a genre filmmaker of note. Saulnier’s previous film, 2013’s Blue Ruin, was a moody revenge tale that found tension in its small moments and understandably garnered critical praise. Rather than going back to the same well, Green Room eschews restraint for excess so thoroughly that, were Saulnier’s stylistic and thematic fingerprints not so indelibly ingrained on both films, the casual viewer could be excused for assuming the two could have been made by different hands.
Saulnier’s directorial signature presents a number of indications that his work may be that of a nascent auteur, as his visual vocabulary and narrative interests have thus far remained consistent. Long aerial tracking shots harken back to Blue Ruin and serve a similar semiotic purpose, while Green Room’s examination of identity provides a thematic echo of, if not outright juxtaposition to, Ruin’s exploration of the topic. Under pressure, the characters at the heart of Green Room find their easily adopted affectations of nihilistic bravado tested to the breaking point and beyond. Despite what they say about the integrity of their art and punk-rock lifestyle, when confronted with the imminent threat of almost certain death (and the bad men intent on delivering it), these are really just suburban kids who might secretly prefer listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival than The Damned. But, once the pretense has been stripped away, some of these characters, who seem to be playing at a toughness beyond their experience, might find a hard edge they never knew existed.
Green Room manages to elevate its slasher-movie trappings by testing conventions while never losing sight of why they became conventions in the first place. Yes, there are the perfunctorily sequential deaths and the claustrophobic setting with boogeymen at every door, but there is a greater degree of creativity on display than basic genre tropes would suggest. Like the early punk bands who set out to take arena rockers down a peg, this film’s aim isn’t to reinvent the wheel but to strip away the bloat and detritus found in the vast majority of post-modern horror, maintaining only those aspects that are absolutely essential. There are very few wasted beats in this film and even fewer chances to pause for air. The script is so expertly structured, it even manages to signal the audience on the one potentially appropriate bathroom break in its 94-minute runtime. The dreaded “second-act drag” is practically nonexistent here, feeling more like a brief and welcome respite from the carnage of the mid-film nadir and leading into a third act that gratifyingly delivers on every plot thread with a deft efficiency.
Beyond Saulnier’s visual acumen and proficient plotting, Green Room is also bolstered by solid performances from a talented cast. Patrick Stewart is the obvious standout here, conveying an appropriate sense of menace without overplaying his scenes. The younger members of the cast hold up their end of the bargain as well, with Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat providing the emotional heart of the film, and Imogen Poots delivering an unnerving turn as an unhinged Nazi forced by the film’s inciting incident to reexamine her associations. As solid as most of the performances are overall, the pleasant surprise of watching Blue Ruin star Macon Blair steal several scenes in a small, but pivotal, role suggests that his career prospects might outstrip even those of his director.
Green Room is not a perfect film. Character development is on the scant side, the level of violence can be exhausting, and no one is likely to accuse the filmmakers of being subtle. But those willing to wade through some gratuitous gore will find a fast-paced and well-thought-out film with a depth that far exceeds its superficial shock value. Only time will tell if Saulnier will continue to produce work at this level of quality, and genre enthusiasts can only hope that he does not abandon low-budget independents for more commercial fare. Should he move away from his roots into more profitable pastures, he will likely still find future fortunes, but it would certainly be a loss to those of us with an affinity for heavier films and the lighter budgets that go along with them. And, in all honesty, as promising a talent as Saulnier might be, I can’t imagine the man that made this film transitioning into romantic comedies. Rated R for strong brutal graphic violence, gory images, language and some drug content.