Blades and Fangs

Anton Yelchin’s last film to be released before his death was a movie called Green Room, a vicious little low-budget indie thriller whose central conflict can be boiled down to three words: Punks vs. Nazis. If this sounds intriguing to you and you have the stomach for graphic violence, Green Room is a movie you need to see.

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Yelchin plays Pat, a member of a punk band called The Ain’t Rights. Pat and his bandmates Sam, Reece and Tiger, hard-up for cash, take a gig at an out-of-the-way club somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Things go reasonably well until it’s time for them to leave, when Pat goes back into the green room (which is like the waiting room for the band) to retrieve Sam’s phone. What he finds is a few of the club regulars standing over the body of a girl with a knife in her head.

Turns out the club is run by Neo-Nazi skinheads who have no intention of letting The Ain’t Rights just walk away. An unbelievably tense game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

Green Room was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who previously directed a critically-acclaimed thriller called Blue Ruin in 2013. Saulnier is a talented director who knows how to ratchet up the tension to nearly unbearable levels. The violence in Green Room is vicious and the squeamish need not apply.

But Saulnier’s direction is top-notch. Every scene is expertly calculated to deliver maximum suspense. The casting is also terrific, with Yelchin’s understated performance showing just how talented of a young actor he was. The movie’s biggest casting coup, however, is the role of Darcy Banker, the ruthless owner of the club and leader of the skinheads, who is played by none other than Patrick Stewart. That’s right, Professor X himself is the merciless villain.

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Needless to say, Stewart is fantastic. He plays a man who has no remorse whatsoever about his actions, and it’s clear to the viewer that he has no intention of letting The Ain’t Rights escape his club alive. “It’ll all be over soon, gentlemen,” he tells them chillingly.

The bulk of the film’s action is a standoff between the band members, trapped in the green room, and the skinheads outside. Some parts of the film are a bit hard to follow. I wasn’t always entirely sure what Darcy’s plan was. I mean, clearly he has some nefarious intentions for Pat and his friends, but some of his actions are a bit confusing.

This is probably intentional though, since it keeps the viewer at a distance. The person watching the film has something of an idea about what Darcy and his henchmen are up to, and therefore we know more than the film’s hapless protagonists do. But the fact that it’s not always clear what Darcy’s designs for Pat and his friends are ensures that we don’t know too much more than the characters, which keeps the tension high.

Take a scene in which Pat attempts to negotiate with Darcy. Pat and his friends are stuck in the green room and a locked door separates them from Darcy, who is standing in the hall outside. The entire scene is filmed from Pat’s perspective inside the room as he talks to Darcy, with Darcy’s voice muffled by the door. Saulnier could have cut back and forth between inside and outside the room to show us both halves of the conversation, but he doesn’t. Again, he keeps the viewer at a distance and ensures that we don’t know what Darcy has lying in wait for the luckless protagonists on the other side of the door.

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This technique also increases the horror of the moment when Pat reaches out the door and his arm is violently grabbed. We know from Pat’s reaction that something that something very bad is happening, but we don’t know the full extent of it until Pat wrenches his arm back inside and we see the horrific slashes all over his arm, with his wrist sliced so severely his hand is nearly severed and dangles obscenely from his forearm.

This is a gruesome movie. Darcy instructs his men not to shoot the band members, since the cops would be able to run ballistics. “Blades and fangs for the visitors,” he tells his skinhead gang. This provides an at least semi-plausible explanation as to why Darcy wouldn’t just send in his troops guns blazing.

It also means that the inevitable deaths of some of the band members will be much more up-close and personal. There are a couple of absolutely vicious Pitbull throat-maulings (the Pitbull being the one doing the mauling, not the one being mauled, just in case it wasn’t clear who was mauling who). A box cutter is put to grisly use for cutting things other than boxes, and when people do get shot the results are bloody.

Saulnier doesn’t shy away from gory details, and the makeup effects (which are most likely all practical, I feel like this is a movie without a shred of CGI) are realistic and grotesque. The movie’s violence was hard even for me to handle at times, and I have a high tolerance level for cinematic bloodshed. Still, as brutal and unforgiving as the movie is, the violence still feels appropriate for the story the movie tells. Well, maybe “appropriate” isn’t quite the right word, but you get the idea.

Pat and his friends are likable individuals. They don’t get much backstory but they don’t really need it, the film shows us enough of their lives (penniless musicians living from gig to gig) that we get a sense of them as people. They’re maybe not the brightest bunch and some of their decision-making is questionable at best. At one point, one of the characters even says the immortal, Scooby-Doo-esque words, “we should split up,” which is a face-palming moment. Still, the ineptitude of the protagonists doesn’t bother me too much, since it’s not hard to believe that anyone placed in such an extreme situation might not be thinking clearly.

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Saulnier is aware of the haplessness of his characters, however. During an interview he referred to Green Room as being part of his “inept protagonist trilogy” where the main characters have to survive being thrust into extreme situations using skills they don’t have.The film’s Oregon setting is particularly vivid for me, since I live in the Pacific Northwest and the forest the Neo-Nazi bar lies in could be in my backyard. Saulnier’s writing may not be perfect but it’s still solid, and his direction is spot-on throughout the film. Expect very good things from him in the future.

Movies like Green Room are proof that money isn’t everything. With the right director and the right cast, you can get a movie more tense and suspenseful than a $200 million blockbuster (looking at you, Independence Day: Resurgence). It’s not for everyone and it’s not perfect, but Green Room delivers what it sets out to do and serves as a potent reminder of the talent we lost in Anton Yelchin.

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