It's a tough road, that of the principled DIY punk act in 2016. That's not just a polite way of saying punk is dead; but it's true that the way punk traditionally approaches disruption does feel out of step with our sleek, contemporary Muskian understanding of the term. Our current cultural discourse favors the technologically and economically savvy. To today's internet-hardened young adult, politically angry art that has not been safely swaddled in a layer of conceptual absurdity or economic viability can engender a "good for you" at best, a twinge of vicarious embarrassment at worst. A band who gets in front of a crowd of 20 like-minded individuals at a house show or a dive bar and howls about our racist, militaristic, capitalist society seem like the least likely candidates to overthrow it.
Making action heroes out of crust punks
In that way, and that way alone, Jeremy Saulnier's grisly thriller Green Room is a fantasy. The film's heroes are a struggling DC-based band called The Ain't Rights, far from home in the rural Pacific Northwest on a quintessential microband disaster tour. Hand-drawn posters, cheap beer hangovers, $20 payouts from shitty bookers, gas siphoning, couch crashing with the odd kind stranger — to some viewers there will be a wistful nostalgia to it all; but it's clear The Ain't Rights are in a bit of limbo. There's some disagreement among the band, for example, about their decision to not use social media. ("You guys are hard to find," a college radio host tells them ominously, early in the film.) There's never the explosive, fatigue-driven "why are we doing this?" fight, but one can feel it lurking in their rumbling van. This changes, of course, when one particular kind stranger leads them to a well-paying show at a neo-nazi venue deep in the Oregon woods.
If you've seen the trailer, or Saulnier's 2013 revenge tragedy Blue Ruin, you know things are bound to go awry. But at first, the gig is strangely energizing — The Ain't Rights finally have an audience they can really piss off, and they do so in short order, opening with the Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" and in return getting a round of beer bottles tossed in their direction. It's the kind of antagonistic thrill the band has clearly been seeking. And once they've proven their hardness they end up winning over the crowd; insofar as they can provide a pummeling soundtrack for some afternoon moshing.
What gets them locked in the titular backstage cell has nothing to do with their performance; it's just a stroke of dumb bad luck. But it nevertheless still causes that transactional truce to drop, and nazis and punks are once again pitted against each other; with the former stopping at nothing until the latter are exterminated. Arms are lacerated, bones snapped, skulls are stabbed, and not everyone makes it out alive, but The Ain't Rights certainly make good on the promise of their opening number.
When Breaking Bad brought neo-nazis in as the Big Bad of the final season, many critics balked. Nobody would call Vince Gilligan's drama a subtle show — this is a series in which a man's severed head once walked in on the back of a turtle and then exploded — but its villains were always given enough context to at least help us understand what led them to be the ruthless cartel leaders or chicken tycoons we meet on the show. Nazis are nazis, on the other hand — obviously the worst, rarely used as vessels of complex morality.
And so, while Green Room shares an aesthetic sensibility with his last film (he shot and directed all his features), Saulnier is up to something very different this time around — something simpler, perhaps, but more immediately satisfying. It's clear the director has an affinity for the classical; Blue Ruin played out like a Greek tragedy, a series of unfortunate decisions, each spiraling out of another. It could have been told from the point of view of the family Dwight (Macon Blair, who also stars in this film) finds himself battling and been just as tragic and complex. Green Room, meanwhile, is a war story à la the Battle of Thermopylae, in which a vastly outnumbered group facing strategically unfavorable spatial circumstances set out for an impossible victory. The Ain't Rights don't have any murky moral crises about their mission — they just want to get the hell out of the green room and the nazi bunker and take out as many skinheads as they need to on their way.
The outsized circumstances end up making it funnier, too — the film has a kind of locked-jaw sardonic sense of humor that is the perfect counterbalance to its moody camerawork and soundtrack. It's not exactly a grindhouse Scott Pilgrim, but a recurring bit about "desert island bands" peppered throughout the carnage has some of that series' music-obsessive winkiness. A last-ditch defense against an attack dog is Looney Tunes-absurd, but also makes perfect sense. The film mines plenty by making action heroes out of crust punks; Imogen Poots' performance as an accidental ally to the band supposes how Twitter user @sosadtoday would hold up in guerrilla warfare. As the band's lead guitarist and idealistic center, Anton Yelchin provides the perfect stubborn counter to Patrick Stewart's Picard-meets-Fring nazi leader. Their negotiations across the green room door are nervy and hilarious, the rebellious freegan vs. the gentlemanly personification of evil.
A fantasy of righteous catharsis
But there's no irony or goofiness here. Saulnier stays clear-eyed as the body count rises, never not believing in his young protagonists. He's thrown them into the fight of their lives, giving them the opportunity to deliver a solid blow to the hatred they'd only rhetorically fought up until now. And they take their assignment deathly seriously. Green Room is hard as fuck, but it's also a fantasy of righteous catharsis. Perhaps in the next color-themed volume of what one can only assume is a loose Kieslowskian trilogy, Saulnier can get back to the moral ambiguity. But for now, it's super fun to just put some bullets in some nazis.
Green Room opens in limited release this Friday, April 15.