Green Room: Trapped by Timidity, by Scott Nye
So broke that they siphoned gas on a cross-country drive to a small-town gig in the Pacific Northwest, a small-time punk band finds themselves in over their heads performing for white supremacists in their remote sanctuary. After they see something they really shouldn’t, an unpleasant gig becomes an overnight hell. This is a strong premise, one writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) builds cleverly and carefully, but which, once arrived at, becomes tidy, neat, and unimaginative. The introduction of Patrick Stewart as the militia’s leader suggests a greater dynamic with which the film might have engaged, but Green Room is too trapped by imposed rules and lockstep alliance with assumed structure to let loose its tightly-bound (and overly-restrained) storytelling.
Locking themselves in the space allotted to visiting artists with a five-round revolver and one of the supremacists’ heavier heavies as their prisoner, the band – Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Tiger (Callum Turner), and Reece (Joe Cole) – along with potential ally Amber (Imogen Poots), proves a little wilier than their hosts anticipated, successfully negotiating a holding pattern until the police arrive to help, which of course they never will. Yelchin in particular plays the terror of these scenes exceptionally well, constantly on the verge of tears or perhaps some more explosive physical response. Saulnier expertly defined the individuals in such short order before they reached the roadhouse that their responses extend naturally. Some are quick to violence, or panic. For Pat, voted the group’s spokesperson by the simple fact that he’s the least hotheaded of the bunch, this encounter puts him in uneasy territory, especially if we assume Sam’s playful threat to “play the show or I’ll tell them you’re Jewish” was not entirely fabricated.
Soon enough, the blood starts spilling, and how. Yet it is precisely here that the film reaches stylistic, narrative, and thematic stasis. Saulnier had some fun early on presenting the punk rock act as passively as possible, reducing their electric performance to just another sad job. He more or less treats the violence similarly, allotting a certain snap and polish to the camerawork and editing that heightens tension but flattens characterization. His technical prowess is suffocating. Only Pat develops beyond how we initially understand him, and only then even so far. Stewart plays against his imposing voice and the authority his age brings (he’s twice as old as nearly everyone else in the film); his character seeming almost friendly at times. Even their model of white power – workshops and meetings, the occasional concert – is oddly devoid of vitriol and hate. Skinheads – they’re just like us! But Saulnier never gives Stewart the opportunity to completely twist that, to let he or his gang reflect the nightmare the band is living. Their guns maintain their threat, but they’re not all that scary. One could argue this approach more “realistic,” that there are no real monsters or any of that banality-of-evil shit, but the film never invests a dynamic level of psychology that would bolster this contention and compel one to look beyond surfaces. Only Poots’s oddly placid avenger invites intrigue, but she’s positioned too tangentially to the story for too long to register at the right moment. As surfaces are the film’s central concern, why not exploit them?
Saulnier substitutes this potential creativity with a sense of responsibility, providing comfort that his narrative will not stray from expected beats – the turn towards violence, the touching backstory, the climactic revelation, the inevitable showdown – nor will they be too greatly indulged. Green Room makes no wrong decisions, and too few right ones. It retreats when it needs to advance. The danger for the characters is palpable enough, but the film itself never feels dangerous, its makers downright conservative in their aesthetic taste. The horror, content simply to thrill, doesn’t bleed from the screen. It remains completely contained, dissipating as soon as it settles. This is the sort of safe, careerist filmmaking – skillfully-executed, not too bold or unusual to turn away investors – that has plagued independent cinema for too long, favoring a definition of the model that emphasizes its a lack of resources without acknowledging its lack of curiosity. This cinema is not independent at all. It hopes to be absorbed into the machine outside which it presumes to operate.