If “Green Room” were only about touring in a punk band, it would be unnerving enough. The movie opens in a cornfield, where members of the Ain’t Rights wake up in their crashed van, confused how they got there. They were all fast asleep, including the driver, when it happened.
Realizing they’ve run out of fuel, band mates Pat (Anton Yelchin) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) scurry to the nearest public business to surreptitiously siphon gasoline in the parking lot, before the band can make it to its next show, which ends up being canceled anyway.
Their promoter, Jonathan (Samuel Summer), tries to make up for the canceled show with an impromptu lunchtime gig at a local diner that nets the band six whole dollars. Life on the road can be desperate. So it makes sense for the Ain’t Rights to jump at the chance to make a few hundred bucks later that night, even though, they learn up front, they’ll be playing at the secluded roadhouse hangout for white-supremacist skinheads. “Don’t talk politics,” Jonathan warns, before giving directions.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that something worse happens. But “Green Room” is tense even before that moment, like watching gasoline being spilled around a room littered with strike-anywhere matches. Bristling at all the neo-Nazi paraphernalia in their dressing room, for example, they decide to throw caution to the wind and give a huge verbal middle finger to the crowd during the show by covering a particularly hostile song by the Dead Kennedys. They get bottles thrown at them, and applause, and their pay. Everything seems fine. It’s surreal, yet real.
The film was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who broke onto the scene a couple of years ago with an ambling revenge film, “Blue Ruin” — partly shot in Richmond. He’s come a long way since then. “Blue Ruin,” intentionally or not, was slow as molasses and conveyed an immature fantasy of violence. “Green Room” snaps and sings with quickly paced action and a madness that feels genuine.
The band is just about to get out of Dodge unscathed when Pat realizes that Sam left her phone behind and goes back to grab it. Oops. He sees something he’s not supposed to. The band is quickly ushered back into the dressing room. The mood turns from uncomfortable to ugly within moments. The fierce, violent and bloody standoff that ensues happens so rapidly and with such realism that the audience scarcely has time to catch its breath as the two sides get extremely nasty with each other.
“Green Room” is a ferocious update on classic exploitation cinema. The setting and characters would be at home in any B-movie grindhouse from the 1970s, but with the added draw of stars like Yelchin and Patrick Stewart, the venue’s owner, who arrives to assess the situation and get a chokehold on it without losing control.
Stewart maintains a surprising calm as Darcy, a homicidal extremist with exceptional leadership skills. He’s not tougher than anyone else, just cooler-headed and more ruthless. The movie tacitly asks which is scarier: Darcy’s hulking enforcer (Brent Werzner) with a trailer full of fighting dogs, or the reasonable-sounding man who wields him?
The film also digs its teeth into questions of human nature back in the dressing room, where Pat and his friends have locked themselves into a stalemate with Darcy’s henchmen. Their attempts to diffuse the situation give the movie added authenticity and pathos, the band naively clinging to the hope of an amicable resolution with militant, drug-addled hoods. The band’s attempts to reason and bargain are just as futile as its escape plans, more desperate than smart or brave.
“Green Room” is so sharp, visceral and effective, and so efficient, that it feels a little ungrateful to complain about Imogen Poots in a supporting but substantial role as Amber, a venue groupie who responds to her impending doom by skinhead dismemberment with a jaded shrug that belies her situation. Her blasé performance, unchanging, is in sharp contrast to her co-stars’ subtle but convincing character development.
Huddled together, realizing this might be the end, the others confined in the green room gradually drop all pretense, even acknowledging their desert-island bands aren’t really hard punk, after all, but Top 40. They might die at any moment, but it’s not too late to truly live. (R) 95 min. S