Green Room is the cinematic equivalent of licking a public restroom floor. Naturally, I loved it.
The new film from the immensely promising young director Jeremy Saulnier pits a rock band against a bunch of neo-Nazis in the Pacific Northwest, who lock the band's members in the titular location and plan to kill them after they witness something they shouldn't have. The film brutally toys with your sympathies as the band members descend into hell, find unlikely allies, and then try to climb their way back out again. Not everybody will survive.
Green Room perfectly embodies the "not for everybody" label. It is unrepentantly nasty, laced with comedy so dark it burns, and filled with gross-out moments that will almost certainly turn your stomach. But somewhere in its black little heart, it has something interesting to say about human resiliency and the reckless moral code of youth. And at just over 90 minutes, it never overstays its welcome.
Green Room is especially interested in the limits of the human body and mind
The biggest mental hurdle most viewers will have to clear in watching Green Room is the somewhat unlikeliness of the band becoming trapped in the backstage location itself.
Essentially everything about the film's premise — from the reason the group is playing a white supremacist bar in a small town to the way its neo-Nazi ownership traps them in the green room after the band members see something they shouldn't have — feels just a little bit contrived. And it's easy enough to nitpick, even as you're watching the film, because Saulnier must go out of his way to make sure nobody in the band can use a cellphone at any time, which takes some doing.
But in the end, it doesn't matter. Green Room trades in nightmare logic, where just because things are bad doesn't mean they can't get much, much worse, and where the economical character development of the film's first 15 minutes is literally all you're going to get before the movie starts blazing toward its conclusion.
At the center of Green Room is the question of endurance, of how much you're willing to put up with to survive. Saulnier is fascinated by the limits of the human body, by the way bones snap and skin rips open to reveal blood beneath.
The film's sporadic moments of violence are sudden and horrifying and squirm-inducing, as they should be. They're bursts of blood and terror, and Saulnier cuts away from them just quickly enough, allowing you to see only what's necessary to let your imagination take over in the worst possible way.
Still, he's almost more interested in psychological endurance than in how much duct tape it takes to hold together a battered arm. He poses the question of why these characters continue to want to survive, even when it's clear they're probably done for.
What keeps people going when they descend into hell? What makes them want to escape?
The film posits that friends are wherever you can find them
By far the most fascinating character in Green Room is Amber (Imogen Poots), a white supremacist young woman who also witnesses said terrible thing and ends up locked in the green room with the band. (She doesn't know them before this happens.)
Too often, the film's depiction of white supremacists seems designed simply to give it villains who are easy to hate, a criticism that includes Amber. Her motivation for signing up with the white supremacists in the first place is that people of another race committed a horrible crime against her (we don't find out what). In response to that, another character quips that it's not like white people are treating her so well at the moment.
But Amber is also a key element of Saulnier's central statement about human behavior conveyed in the film, which is that alliances, relationships, and motivations are all mutable.
Amber might have been one of the bad guys, were she on the other side of the door separating the band from her fellow neo-Nazis. But because she's trapped inside the green room with them, she becomes a vital ally in times of trouble.
Saulnier is not excusing Amber's worst self — though it's definitely buried — but he does seem interested in the fact that so much of what she believes, or of what anybody believes in this film, is driven by circumstance. Be surrounded by white supremacists, and you might end up being a white supremacist yourself.
In particular, Saulnier doesn't try to suggest that the members of the band are titans of morality themselves. They still play the show, even when they find out what kind of club they're playing. They simply offer a nasty punk sneer to the crowd, expecting to very soon be on their way.
Of course, in the universe of Saulnier's movies (which includes his breakthrough film, the 2014 thriller Blue Ruin) the bottom is always just about to drop out.
Exploring the good guys, the bad guys, and everybody else
One of the most interesting things about Green Room is that it defines its heroes precisely by making them not the villains. As led by Darcy (Patrick Stewart, clearly relishing the chance to play someone so vile), the neo-Nazis are so self-evidently terrible that all other human beings become less so in comparison.
The band itself has a couple of familiar faces in it — Anton Yelchin of the new Star Trek films and Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame — but it's far more interesting as a collective (particularly once the band joins forces with Amber) than as anything else. The group might be screwed, but they keep making plans to escape, because no one wants to die at the hands of neo-Nazis who sic dogs on them.
Somewhere inside of Green Room, then, is a thoughtful consideration of not good versus evil, but normal versus evil. Again, the members of the band don't want to cause a fuss. They just want to play the show and get out of town with money in hand. But, backs against the wall, they fight back anyway.
At times I found myself wishing that Green Room had more moral weight to it — that it had presented the neo-Nazis as something other than cartoon supervillains, meant to be so bad that we'd applaud when they were bloodily dispatched. But the more I considered Green Room in that context, the more I realized I was barking up the wrong tree.
Green Room tilts the moral spectrum of good guys versus bad guys so far toward the evil end that punk kids who are simply trying to live their lives and play with their band become the de facto "good."
The more I've thought about that, the more I've realized how frequently it's true — how so often those who stand up to tyranny aren't moral heavyweights at all but restless kids who just want to live in a slightly less terrible world. They might not stand up right away, or even all at once, but once they're cornered, there's no force harder to repel.
Green Room is playing in New York and Los Angeles. It expands throughout the country on April 29.