REVIEW: Overwhelmingly brutal and sharp, ‘Green Room’ is so close to fun it hurts

green room

Coasting on fumes and drained by the road, a hardcore-punk band is on the verge of calling it quits. After a meager show and an even less successful interview, they’re ready to pack it up and call it tour. And one guesses that, when they return home, the experience has left them so embittered that another record is doubtful. They’re done.

But at the last minute, they’re offered a kind of double-or-nothing proposition: play one more show in the backwoods of Oregon and they’ll have more than enough cash to get home and maybe some extra for their effort. But there’s a hitch: don’t talk politics. The venue’s crowd, they’re told, skews to the right (“technically, ultra left”) and they can expect a few skinheads in the bunch. Undeterred, they agree. (Hardcore punk has always had the odor of fascism.) But whatever political nonsense they’ve seen before can hardly prepare them for the swastikas and SS flags that adorn the club’s walls. In an ill-considered act of defiance, they open their set with a cover of “Nazi Punks F*** Off,” sending the buzz-cut crowd into a hostile frenzy.

That’s only a hint of the violence to come. At this point, Green Room is thick with setup and an air of high-tempo, urgent malevolence—it’s only a matter of time before this thing explodes. When it does, Green Room delivers on the promise with an orgiastic glee. Green Room is at its best just as it really gets going: under siege in the titular space, the band is forced to play a game of high-stakes diplomacy with its captors. As the situation comes unglued, they have to keep up in a kind of chess game as they decide what, exactly, is going on just outside of their cell and how they can fight back. Whatever’s on hand is a potential weapon, and the movie urges the audience to play along: trapped in that cage, what kind of contraptions could be concocted with the carefully dealt stray props? Pitched somewhere in between Panic Room and Assault on Precinct 13, it’s fun, clever stuff.

But there’s a seriousness here that deflates any kind of potential funhouse escapism: the wounds and severed limbs are crafted with an attention to detail that equals the movie’s grim determination to keep things within the realm of the real. When the blood flows, rest assured that it’ll flow just like the real thing. Information comes quickly in Green Room, and some of it gets lost as we play along. Crucial choices and motivations seem to come out of nowhere while, alongside the characters’ disposability, other details (like a running joke about the kids’ real desert-island recording artist) feel a little sick. (That one names Prince is unfortunate.) Of course, the whole thing falls apart under close scrutiny—the best genre movies do. But, in its tossed-off confidence and craftsmanship, Green Room urges viewers to invest in these kids while knocking them off in horror-movie fashion. But one doesn’t feel any joy in seeing them ripped to shreds—they’re too carefully drawn. By the time daylight arrives, Green Room has plunged viewers to hell and back, and it’d be fun if it weren’t so cruel. It’s a punishing experience, not far from bad taste; but like hardcore, the jolt is what lingers.

Green Room. Directed and written by Jeremy Saulnier. Starring Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, and Patrick Stewart. Opens across Kansas City April 30th.

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