April 30, 2016

"Green Room" Asks the Question: How Will Today's 20-Somethings Fare in a Horror Movie Crisis?

Green Room is an abysmal new horror-thriller from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) about a punk-metal band trapped inside a dive-bar by a bunch of white supremacists. The movie recalls, loosely, the exploitation shockers from the 70s like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, but Green Room never builds to the fever pitch of Last House or other similar films that, as reprehensible as most of them are, at least had the courage to embrace total insanity. Green Room certainly embraces its own gruesome and unpleasant nature, but this movie never loses control, never just goes full-on crazy. If it did, perhaps it would be better. Green Room is too calculated for that, like a sociopath who just wants you to think he’s bonkers. And the movie never develops the kind of loose energy that great exploitation movies need: it’s all fits and starts (the attackers attack, the victims fight back, things settle down, they heat up again, and so on). Furthermore, Saulnier weighs the movie down with too much inane dialogue between his characters. Saulnier rightly wants to give his audience little breaks from the tension, but his dopey characters utter their lines with such bland disinterest that they might as well be filming their Behind-the-Music documentary when they’re not fending off machetes and attack dogs.

Here’s the setup: At a dive-bar somewhere in Southern Oregon, Patrick (Anton Yelchin), a guitarist in a punk-metal band witnesses a murder and tries to call 911 before one of the killers wrests the phone from him and he and his band-mates are locked inside the green room. Inside with Patrick are Reece (Joe Cole), Sam (Alia Shawkat), and Tiger (Callum Turner), along with one of the white supremacist’s girlfriends, Amber (Imogen Poots), and keeping watch is one of the Neo-Nazis, a big bear of a man named Justin, who pretty successfully takes on three of the skinny 20-somethings with ease, until one of them gets him in a death grip and holds him there until the others can snatch his gun.

But it doesn’t matter: these white supremacists are well-organized. They stage a fake stabbing in order to lose the police, and then summon Darcy, their icy, calculating neo-Nazi leader (Patrick Stewart), to figure out what to do with the band-mates. Instead of quickly dispatching with their prisoners, Darcy and his men wage a relentless, strategic, escalating attack against four skinny middle-class 20-something who may be the least resourceful smart kids I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Perhaps this is a cautionary tale about how millenials will fare in a crisis: They argue about who has to hold the gun, they make too much noise when they try to escape, and Patrick has to trick himself that it’s all a game in order to fight back. (This is after he nearly loses his hand in a particularly grueling scene.)

But, in their defense, the band-mates do have a few tricks up their sleeves: They use microphones and speakers to create feedback in the monitors, which makes the attack dogs whimper and retreat. Sam makes effective use of a fire extinguisher; other band members use any makeshift weapon they can find, from a mic stand to one of those long, glow-stick-like fluorescent light bulbs.

Patrick emerges as the film’s unlikely hero, although he’s aided by the surprisingly funny and strong-willed Neo-Nazi girl Amber. At the beginning of the movie, we hear Patrick waxing on about the beauty of live performance as the only true way to experience music. But in the green room, none of his eloquent theories about art matter. He’s reduced to his own instincts and physical strength, and initially he cowers. But Patrick is the one who finally psyches himself up enough to fight back, by imagining it’s all just a game, that he doesn’t have to worry about death. He can never fully embrace the reality of the situation. “This is a nightmare,” he says. “Shouldn’t we be panicking?” Except for his reaction to the aforementioned injury, Patrick’s emotions do not fluctuate; he’s never truly affected by anything, not even the deaths of people he cares about.

Those little quips like “shouldn’t we be panicking?” are uttered in mockery of the situation, and they amount to decidedly lackluster attempts at levity. Green Room may be too self-serious to start making light of things in the first place. Saulnier wants to horrify us with his images, like when he cuts to a close-up of a character’s mangled neck: he’s just been ferociously mauled by a hell-hound, Baskerville style. Saulnier establishes a lame running joke too: Early in the film, when the band-mates are being interviewed for some underground radio show, the host asks each of them what band they’d want to listen to if stranded on a desert island. As perhaps another cynical jab at 20-somethings, Saulnier lets the band-mates agonize over their choices, as though the scenario might one day present itself for real, and they’d be really sorry if they accidentally picked the Ramones over the Sex Pistols (but secretly really wanted Madonna).

Near the end of the movie, Patrick, who has been unable to think of an answer, says, “I figured out my desert island band.” Amber, the white supremacist chick who’s been thrust into their world as a fellow prisoner, retorts, “find somebody who gives a shit.” The joke works beautifully, thanks to Amber’s droll delivery. (Poots is really the stand-out in this movie.) Anton Yelchin, who brandishes his husky voice like a velvety cutlass, is a strong performer, and he’s able to carry Green Room in spite of its many short-comings. (And of course, Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as the Neo-Nazi Father, running the show, keeping dangerously calm throughout.)

But no one saves Green Room from being irritating and unpleasant. Gore hounds may enjoy this movie, although it’s not really that gory. It has a few hard-to-watch scenes. More than anything, Green Room is about survival, about being stripped of the BS that we normally carry around as armor, when we realize none of it will keep us safe in the face of a truly surreal crisis. But this idea wasn’t enough to make me care about the movie. I felt a lot like Amber did. 

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