There are some film premises that are so straightforwardly appealing that little else needs to be said about the movies behind them. ‘Punks vs. neo-Nazis’ is undoubtedly one of them, succinctly capturing what is to come and exactly why you’re going to want to see it.
Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat form half of punk band The Ain’t Rights, who have plenty of punk’s DIY ethos and not much money to show for it, crashing on promoters’ floors and siphoning petrol to keep their tour van running. A last-minute gig offering $350 proves too much to resist, even if the audience will be made up mainly of the “boots and braces” crowd of local white supremacists.
Opening their set with the Dead Kennedys’ ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ does little to appeal to the far-right crowd (“Technically, they’re ultra-left,” Jeremy Saulnier’s razor-sharp script jests), but it’s when Yelchin’s bassist Pat witnesses something he shouldn’t have that things really kick off. Trapped backstage in the titular green room, The Ain’t Rights are left to defend themselves against the none-too-friendly neo-Nazis, led by the eerily calm, pragmatic bar owner Darcy – played by an against-type Patrick Stewart.
Writer/director Saulnier’s previous feature, Blue Ruin, was a melancholic slow-burn, looming tension punctuated by bursts of violence. By contrast, Green Room is a more immediate affair. Brutality doesn’t so much punctuate the film as dominate it, tight pacing quickly moving the characters from one assault to the next with relentless momentum. Those assaults are visceral, bloody affairs, as the skinheads pursue our punks with machetes, shotguns and fight dogs, while improvised weapons including a fire extinguisher and an inspired use of audio feedback form the bulk of the protagonists’ arsenal. Saulnier makes the use of the confined space to generate tension, while some of the year’s most squirm-inducing makeup work adds impact to the injuries.
Yelchin, still best known for the recent Star Treks and 2011’s Fright Night remake, is as likeable as ever in the sort of underdog roles he’s made his bread-and-butter, but isn’t taken much out of his comfort zone. Shawkat proves she’s capable of more than just comedy, while Imogen Poots is surprisingly steely as sympathetic supremacist stuck with the punks. Stewart is very far from familiar territory as the matter-of-fact Darcy, a cold, understated villain more interested in quiet manipulation than grand theatrics. Playing the antagonist is unusual territory for Stewart but he resists the urge to over-egg the performance, instead finding the fright in an all-too-believable character.
The punk rock spirit runs throughout Green Room, which is as exhilarating, aggressive and surprising as its musical inspiration. It’s a film of simple ambitions and sophisticated results, taking a classic horror set-up and building on it with strong performances, a witty script and the same sophisticated, striking camerawork Blue Ruin boasted. Genre tropes are set up to be knocked down, while our protagonists are reassuringly, realistically inept when it counts – all the aggressive punk spirit in the world won’t teach you how to use a shotgun in a firefight.
Much like the best punk songs, Green Room is spiky, intense and short-lived, drawing to a close just in time to leave you wanting more.
Words by Dominic Preston