Saturday, January 7, 2017

Green Room (2016)

On the surface Green Room is a brilliantly construed potboiler: a touring punk rock band called the Ain't Rights arrive at a grungy dive outside of Portland to play one last show before heading home back east. From the get-go things aren't quite right, from the venue miss-spelling their name as The Aren't Rights on the sign outside, to the band rashly choosing to open their set with a cover of Nazi Punks Fuck Off in front of their neo-nazi skinhead audience. They see it as a joke, but they're obviously naive when it comes to the sensitive and violent natures of the white supremacists who inhabit these eerie American regions where civility and equality are foreign terms. The rough start quickly turns to a nightmare when the band witnesses the aftermath of brutal murder in the venue's green room and suddenly find themselves shut in there as the management tries to figure out how to deal with the sudden dilemma. 

When people talk about the movie, it's usually the pulpy elements they refer to, the nauseating violence, the white knuckle thrills, and how memorable Patrick Stewart is as the cunning villain holding this punk rock band captive in the green room of his music venue that covertly functions as a drug den.

That's certainly how I reacted and spoke of it after I saw the film when it was released in Dallas last May. But I was a different person in May, and our country was a different country, and as things have changed, and the future awaits at best as a grey cloud and at worst as a cold and windy storm, the function of film as antidotal is in full force.

Perhaps that is why when I began to consider Green Room again a few weeks ago, I cared less for the film's visceral thrills and more for the care with which it was made and that strange, mysterious soul I hadn't noticed before. Context is crucial. I’m different than I was, we’re different than we were, and that creates new avenues of experience. In times like these we wonder, fear, hope, and watch movies, this time through a different lens, and hope to see something that resonates with our needs. We value the good movies of 2016 maybe a little more than we would in a different year. 

Of course Green Room was objectively the same film a second time through, but with the world seeming suddenly far different than it did when I saw it seven months ago, I found new and unexpected things to value in it. And unexpected is the key word here, for I'm a punk rock neophyte and have no real affiliation with its culture. Put that within the trappings of a pulpy genre thrill fest and I'm fully on board for something wild and entertaining. The last thing I'd expect though is to be moved as I was by this movie. And coming when it did, at the twilight of the strangeness that was 2016, I needed it.

The elements that make Green Room a strangely emotional film are not hidden. Rocks need not be turned over to find them. Instead the film puts them in plain sight and allows the viewer to perceive them if they're willing to take in the film as a whole. However, most people I've talked to, and most reviews I've read as well, did not ingest the film's emotional core. This is hardly a problem, as Saulnier does not make it easy to pick out the nuances in his story simply because its central action is so nerve-wracking. It can be difficult to find poignancy in a story when you're having a breakdown (the latter, I’d say, being the chief function of a good thriller).

So let's see just what remains of Green Room when you strip away its brilliant tension, violence, and genre thrills. The first key to understanding how Saulnier's emotional landscape is constructed is through what at this point can be called a motif in his body of work: In his little-seen Murder Party (2007), his breakthrough Blue Ruin (2014), and now in Green Room, Saulnier has demonstrated a penchant for discarding the use of archetypes in genre stories. If you look at most of the great genre films, the archetype is crucial to the narrative, which is why you often hear about genres being interchangeable. In John Carpenter's classic Assault on Precinct 13 (which seems to be a major reference point for Green Room), a cop and a criminal must team up in order to defend a police station under siege by a malevolent street gang. There's a parallel between the cop-criminal tandem and the archetypical outlaw and sheriff in the Old West, which is why it's easy to imagine Carpenter's film as a Classical Hollywood Western. With Saulnier, this sort of mindset isn't possible.

His method is to replace the archetype with normal everyday people who are completely out of their element in a genre movie. That's why Blue Ruin was so strange and invigorating, because Macon Blair played an awkward character in a juicy revenge plot who had no idea how to make revenge look cool. And that's why the punk rock band in Green Room, consisting of bassist Pat (the late, great Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), singer Tiger (Callum Turner), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole), aid the movie in its audacity and energy: they're stuck in a room surrounded by violent thugs and have no idea how to go about dealing with that problem. After all, they're musicians, not bad-ass macho movie heroes.

As I re-watched the movie, I knew how it would play out, I knew where the violence would pop up and knew that its grisly nature would make me cringe. I also knew that in the wake of an election that has thrown this country into a strange disarray that the best kind of antidotal cinema is that which reminds of the possibility of a sublime narrative, image, or idea.

But for the most part, Green Room is an awesomely harsh, ugly film, exquisitely crafted yet so cold to the touch it's numbing. But that's precisely why the beauty Saulnier manages to bring to the movie matters so much. It's when something so grim manages to find amidst the rubble a kind of grace and elegance that you don't just take notice, but truly value it. On its own terms, such beauty has less power, but when surrounded by things that terrify us--like getting trapped in a tiny room by neo-nazis, like getting your hand nearly severed by a machete, like getting mauled by a vicious mutt--that it becomes magnificent.

For Saulnier, this begins with the expunging of archetypes replaced by real people. The Ain't Rights is a tight-knit pack, bound by camaraderie and a sense they're participating in an act of preserving the purity of music. Whatever that means. In a film this swift, you can only speculate about it.

At the film’s start when they crash with a radio host named Tadpole, Tiger examines his music collection and says "This dude's legit. He's true." Regardless of their actual talent, the band takes the idea of music and how it ought to be played and experienced dead seriously. When Tadpole interviews them towards the film's beginning, he comments that the Ain't Rights are "Hard to find. Why no social media presence?" he asks. Pat, who represents you might say the heart and soul of the group, responds, "No one wants to starve, but when you take it all virtual, you lose--the texture. You gotta be there. Music is...for effect, it's time and aggression, and it's shared live, and then, it's over." Tadpole then asks the Desert Island Question, the one artist you'd take if you were stranded on an island, and as the rest of the band spews various names, Saulnier keeps his camera focused on Pat, who looks utterly perplexed and stressed by the question. Like his own music-making, he takes these sorts of things dead seriously. You can imagine the other band members drifting away into other avenues of life down the line, but Pat strikes us as a lifer, the one who will always stick around because he loves the music too much. Similar, I should add, to how the film is structured, with each member of the band eventually being struck down until it's just Pat who remains. We don't just want to see him survive because, hey, that's how the logic of good-versus-evil genre films work, because he’s "the good guy," but because he's partaking in the kind of life that's really worth something. He cares. As such, we care.

Green Room does not indulge much in the psychology of its characters. Nor does it offer much exposition about them, who they are, where they come from. Frankly it doesn't have much time to. But it does provide snippets, brief moments that elevate the film if you notice them. When I first saw the film maybe I did notice these things, but I must have forgotten about them immediately once the carnage began. This time around it was these brief moments and small details that stuck with me: the snippets of character explication, the pockets of empathy, and the love Saulnier seemed to have for the Ain't Rights. I realized that Green Room is not the year's most unsettling movie because of its violence, but because Saulnier displays a sensitivity towards the individuals who become victims of the violence. And it's not just the band he cares about.

There's Daniel, a skinhead traitor who tries and fails to help the band escape, just as he tried and failed to escape with a girl whose stabbing by a jealous boyfriend instigated the entire mess at the center of the film. There's Gabe (Blue Ruin's Macon Blair), a bouncer who's so concerned about doing his job that he loses track of the fact that all the violence that takes place is in conflict with his personal values. Note the sadness in his eyes when he realizes he’s gone too far and too much blood has been shed. And of course there's the wonderful Imogen Poots as Amber, a friend of the murdered girlfriend turned ally for the Ain't Rights as they try to escape this nightmare of a situation.

Poots has a wonderfully evocative face, her massive eyes and slightly drooping mouth expressing a natural sense of melancholy and disappointment. As such hers is a perfect bit of casting: you might see her as a badass rebel chick who gets to help the good guys, or you just might take note of how tragic this situation is for her. She’s just seen her best friend get killed, and now she’s in an impossibly difficult survival scenario. If you watch her performance closely, her face, the way she draws out her syllables, you realize she’s not just a genre heroine, but, like the members of the Ain’t Rights, a real person, dealing with the shocking and tragic nature of the situation. 

You might argue that I’m taking this way too far, that these elements are unintentional and that this is a straight genre film with a mean soul. After all, this is a film with killer mutts, dogs trained to slaughter and who in fact take out a two unfortunate members of the Ain’t Rights. Yet in the film’s end, when Pat and Amber at last emerge victorious and the trainer of the dogs is shot dead, we see one of them walk over and rest its head on its master. It’s troubling, but also a deeply sad, potent image, and one that I don’t think Saulnier would have included if he didn’t intend Green Room as something just a little more than a brilliant exercise in genre filmmaking. When you get into the film’s exciting beats and rhythms, this is something that’s easy to miss. But all you have to do is watch from the right point of view and you see it was there all along.

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