Director Jeremy Saulnier has a way with characters who are utterly unprepared for the carnage they find themselves in the middle of. He's made two gripping, low-fi action movies about people who, when it comes to violence, are uncertain — they're very obviously amateurs. Their encounters with bloodshed have mostly come from watching movies, until they find themselves shakily clutching a knife or a gun. It makes for thrillers that are darkly funny and live-wire unpredictable.
There's an early scene in Saulnier's 2013 revenge drama Blue Ruin in which the tattered wreck of a protagonist messily botches an attempt to slit a guy's throat, then slices his own hand open trying to slash the tires on the man's ride, then realizes he dropped his own car keys and actually needs the other guys' car in order to make his getaway. It's like a physical comedy bit run through a bleak filter, its perpetrator is left shellshocked, bloody, and clammy with trauma-induced sweat.
The characters in Green Room, Saulnier's new skull-rattling, brutally wry follow-up film, are just as unready for their fraught circumstances: barricaded inside a music venue in rural Oregon while a collection of malicious white supremacists circle outside. To be fair, it's not a scenario you can ever really rehearse for. One minute you're a band on tour, taking a last-minute gig to patch together enough money to get to your next stop, and the next you're running afoul of a neo-Nazi gang led by Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart, playing a kind of menacing, racist grandfather figure who uses live music as a recruitment tool).
This band, the Ain't Rights, are a four-piece punk group whose brand of rebellion is born from ideology. They're so opposed to marketing they don't have any social media presence, and they're fueling their way around the country by siphoning gas out of parked cars. When they crash at the house of a local, one member surveys his host's album collection before admiringly pronouncing him "true." When they book the gig to play at a skinhead venue to a boots and braces crowd — not their usual audience — they kick their set off with a bird-flipping cover of the Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" despite getting a few bottles lobbed their way. (One of the movie's nice touches is how, after that rough start, the crowd still launches enthusiastically into a mosh pit — hard music as momentary common ground.)
It's when the group is ready to leave the venue when trouble starts, because it's then that they stumble on the body of a young woman who's been killed in the green room, a situation the owner of the joint would prefer to go unreported to the police. Bad for them, for the dead girl, and for her skinhead pal Amber (Imogen Poots, an awesomely cool customer), but a setup that becomes a tremendously good time for us.
Bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin, who's become such an Elijah Wood doppelgänger it's a little eerie), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), and singer Tiger (Callum Turner) are skinny kids in torn T-shirts who talk with bravado about dying young but who aren't ready for a life-or-death showdown. Drummer Reece (Joe Cole, American accent sometimes slipping into British) practices MMA on the side but, as he points out, his matches usually end with everyone getting drunk together — not in casualties. It's the cynical Amber, who witnessed her friend's murder (knife to the skull, a death Blue Ruin also features), who understands immediately what these strangers are reluctant to accept: that the police aren't going to come and set things right, and that they're going to be fighting for their survival if they want to escape the windowless room in which they've holed up.
Saulnier clearly has some safety pin and homemade patches days in his own past, because Green Room's filled with lived-in details about the punk circuit and its varied substrata. The mohawked youth who sets the Ain't Rights up with their ill-fated show describes the rough crowd, noting they're "right wing," but then, with amusing specificity, corrects himself that they're "technically ultra left." When the band settles in at their crashpad to drink for a night, Tiger queues up Fear's "Legalize Drugs," a record that counts off with a loud "ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR," and then rather than reveal the hard-partying to follow, the film cuts directly to its aftermath, the needle in the locked groove and Sharpie drawings all over the face of the first person who fell asleep.
What makes Green Room's premise so thrilling is how much it lets these characters lead the action — sometimes into dangerous dead ends. The group tries to escape the green room only to end up retreating back to it at least once. They feel palpably real, the Ain't Rights, as does Amber; and while they don't all survive when the body count starts rising, they're not easy cannon fodder. They're neatly individualized, but they, and the violent gang they're up against, have one thing in common: They're all dedicated members of a punk rock scene calling foul on each other's right to the identity, only this time for keeps. Sam sneeringly refers to Amber "Ilsa," as in "She Wolf of the SS." When one of the skinheads attacks, his battle cry is "dipshit fashion punk clown motherfuckers."
And Green Room doesn't wear these assaults or its gore lightly, even when its action builds, deftly, from a simmer to a full boil. A graphic vivisection is all the more disturbing thanks to the distressed reaction of the person holding the victim down. Somebody else's gaping wound is patched together with duct tape in a memorable bit of DIY triage. One of the red-laced-boot neo-Nazis (played by Eric Edelstein, Kai Lennox, Mark Webber, and Blue Ruin star Macon Blair) trains pit bulls to be used as gruesomely effective weapons, but the dogs are also, as a bittersweet late scene attests, beloved by their owner as pets. People aspire to all sorts of hard-boiled badassery in Green Room, either in spirit or as a whole hate-filled way of life, but the movie never lets you forget that — punks or skinheads — everyone bleeds.