In the first moments of Green Room, there’s an overhead shot of a weathered van that’s veered into a cornfield. The van’s passengers—a touring punk foursome called The Ain’t Rights—awaken and greet their misfortune with groans but little alarm, as if hardly surprised by another disaster. However, the band guitarist and de facto manager, Sam (Alia Shawkat), perks up a bit when she finds that her cellphone, plugged into the cigarette lighter, is fully charged.
That little flourish—depicting cellphone battery life as a veritable lifeline—is the first sign that Green Room is unusually attuned to the minutia of a scrappy punk band. And before long, the movie demonstrates familiarity with the subculture’s abhorrent, lunatic fringe: neo-Nazi skinheads.
The bulk of Green Room, which is now in theaters, occurs after The Ain’t Rights accept a last-minute invitation to perform for the “boots and braces” crowd. Advised against talking politics and promised a couple hundred bucks, they arrive at a dreary compound in the woods teeming with flight jackets and Bic’ed skulls. The set goes well enough, but when the band sees something they shouldn’t have, skinhead ringleader Darcy Banker—played as a merciless pragmatist by Patrick Stewart—calls for “red laces,” a metonymy for true believers willing to whack the witnesses, who are now barricaded in the titular green room.
The ensuing violence—a series of queasily graphic skirmishes between the punks and skins—makes Green Room feel like a nightmare depiction of hardcore’s historically regressive elements (and it might resonate especially strongly with viewers who’ve felt excluded by white male hegemony in the music scene). With filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier’s stark, severe direction, the subcultural melee is like a lashing Raymond Pettibon drawing brought to life.
For Saulnier, 39, Green Room converges predilections for punk rock and camp ultra-violence alike. He was reared on action movies in Alexandria, Virginia (which isn’t far from The Ain’t Rights hometown, Arlingon). Saulnier and his lifelong friend Macon Blair—who stars in Saulnier’s breakout revenge thriller Blue Ruin and plays a conflicted boot-boy bureaucrat named Gabe in Green Room—told the New York Times in 2014 that they made a Super 8 film about cops and cocaine dealers together back in grade school.
The play-violence of Saulnier’s tweens gave way to an interest in punk a few years later, when he started attending matinee hardcore gigs in Washington, DC. “In the 1990s, there were Nazi skinheads at almost every show I went to,” he says in a recent interview. “They attracted violence. Once there was a stabbing outside of the club and I remember walking past, seeing this pool of blood. It was non-fatal, but it was scary as hell.”
Following the critical success of Blue Ruin, Saulnier was poised to work with bigger studios but opted to go the independent route for Green Room instead. “It’s a way for me to express my love of the scene and why I was so attracted to it,” he says. “I wanted to remember the aesthetic and also to exploit it, since it’s so rich cinematically, by letting the textures and colors congregate under one roof.”
And the bulk of the movie does occur under one roof, a club in the Pacific Northwest that Saulnier designed and then had constructed from the ground up. In this regard, Green Room evokes the siege scenario of horror classics such as Dawn of the Dead and Assault on Precinct 13 (the latter of which Saulnier says he deliberately avoided watching). And like those movies, the characters’ improvisational use of their given surroundings provides much of the thrill.
[P]unks and skins are a vessel for the elemental grit at the heart of his filmmaking overall: “Mud, blood, dust, fire extinguisher retardant—all that stuff.”
“As a very independently minded filmmaker, I wanted to use all of the resources of the club, to use the environment as a tool,” Saulnier says. “So with the punk rock club there’s stacks of speakers, amplifiers, a mixing board, and a mic, and I went, ‘Let’s see how they’d acclimate to this environment and find tools to hopefully survive the night.’”
Most inventively, the embattled punks find speaker feedback useful for repelling attack dogs. It’s a strong, lasting image, one that literalizes a rather romantic notion—endemic to protest music and punk for decades—about weaponizing music against oppressors. Still, Saulnier isn’t fishing for that sort of interpretation. Though sensitive to the visual language of the subcultural intersection it inhabits, Green Room eschews exploration of the attendant ideologies.
The Ain’t Rights, leery of the audience but keen on the pay, include a cover of The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” in their set, but it’s presented in a spirit more of prank than protest. And the skinheads, aside from mutterings about an upcoming “racial advocacy workshop,” mention little of their particular agenda or philosophy. “It’s not a lesson or a morality tale,” Saulnier says. In Green Room, he continues, punks and skins are a vessel for the elemental grit at the heart of his filmmaking overall: “Mud, blood, dust, fire extinguisher retardant—all that stuff.”
Still, deep in the background of Green Room rests scene commentary. Consider Tad, the punk who interviews The Ain’t Rights for his fanzine and books the lousy restaurant gig. “Tad is based on Tad,” Saulnier says. “He’s a buddy of mine. He’s devoted and true and enthusiastic. He’s trying to prop up a scene that’s kind of dying.” But Tad, true believer for the punk camp, is the fellow who reluctantly connects The Ain’t Rights with the skinheads. “He means well of course,” Saulnier says. “This movie is supposed to be fun, but it’s also tragic; it’s about intentions and things going wrong when humans try to preserve what’s near and dear to their hearts.”