THE GREEN ROOM is technically flawless. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has crafted a horror film that plays upon the well-chosen phobias about extremists, backwoods rough justice, and the down side of the music business. Yet, for all the graphic flourishes of dog-mangled throats, a close-up belly slitting, and the results of gunfire meeting flesh, this is a viscerally pallid film that never quite gives us an emotional stake in the outcome. Rather, it is a cinematic text book on how to make such a film, not the product that it endeavors to create.
The premise is a group of punk-rockers at the very end of their less than triumphant career. Forced to siphon gas in order to keep the tour on the road, playing a Mexican restaurant’s lunch rush for little more than rice, beans, and not quite enough money to keep them from further siphoning, they are offered a shot at real money, or at least real-er money, by playing a club in the middle of the dark woods. That it’s a club frequented by fans of the White Power movement is not the deterrent it should have been, and for that transgression, and perhaps all that pilfered gasoline, things go very bad very fast after they are paid for their performance. It’s not that the music didn’t go over, it’s that Sam (Alia Shawkat) left her phone in the eponymous green room, and when she goes to retrieve it, she and the others discover a dead girl with a knife sticking out of her head, another girl (Imogene Poots) wimpering about it, and a couple of very muscular guys registering their enormous displeasure about having been disturbed at such a delicate moment. From here on out the story stops being a depiction of one dream dying, and starts being about how the band will stay alive long enough to find another. A prospect that becomes less and less likely as the club’s owner, and would-be Fuhrer of another Reich (Patrick Stewart) arrives on the scene irked that such impulsiveness and selfishness has taken place on his premises.
The trope of a cat-and-mouse game between murderous fanatics and a punk band with limited life skills has its charms, and certainly Anton Yelchin as the bass player turned urban warrior does a fine job of keeping just this side of crippling hysteria as he first tries to come to grips with what is happening, and then to convince himself that he doesn’t have to die. He also has a great face, expressive and quivering like a tormented gelatin mold, for the close-ups that Saulnier favors. It is, of course, the perfect choice to embrace the claustrophobia of the tight situation, literal and metaphorical, of innocent bystanders trapped in small room covered in posters and graffiti of a disturbing political nature. The succession of quick, suitably tight shots builds tension, as do the sudden bursts of violence.
It’s the characters that are the problem as they race along in a story that a meticulous backstory revealed in well-timed succession. Not that the cast doesn’t commit. They do. but for all their fine work, they never overcome being stock characters. Even Shawkat as the most capable member of the band, be it finding a place to siphon gas, or wielding a fire extinguisher with extreme prejudice when nothing better in the way of a weapon presents itself, can’t overcome the one-note curse. Stewart as the urbane supremacist with a code of etiquette as severe as his politics, fares better through sheer force of will and a way of saying “maelstrom” when describing the difficulties that is the essence of elegance.
THE GREEN ROOM is something to be admired for what it does accomplish, even if that’s only to remind us never to leave our phone behind.