LFF Film Review: Green Room (★★½)

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BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Besides the notable cast, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is most likely closer to his 2007 horror comedy Murder Party than his sleeper 2014 thriller Blue Ruin. One of the most pleasant surprises of last year, it was very nice to see that Saulnier managed to gather up a follow-up in a relatively quick time – the gap from festival run to general release date notwithstanding. Green Room continues the vein of comically inept people in violent situations, but it’s too crowded and lacks the subversiveness that made Blue Ruin so riveting. More characters means more bloodshed, but it uses that a crutch to get easy thrills rather than spending time getting us invested. Nevertheless, on concept alone it’s destined for cult status, but lets hope Saulnier has a better idea up his sleeve next.

Set in a day or two on the frugal tour of a punk band – they appear to be entirely fueled on stealing gas from other cars – including Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner and Joe Coe, they’re very young, semi-talented, with a modest following but very little prospects. They’re just in it for the thrill of the moment onstage. From a tip of a journalist after a gig is cancelled, they play a show at a neo-nazi venue just to get by. They tease the crowd with anti-white-supremacist lyrics, but they’re in no real danger until one of the band members accidentally stumbles upon a murder in the bar’s green room. They’re held hostage, helped by a friend of the deceased played by Imogen Poots, until it becomes clear that the supremacist’s only option – lead by Patrick Stewart – is to leave no witnesses and frame the band for everything. Cue a relentless bloodbath and a grudging cleanup.

While the first gore scene is certainly stomach churning, the film regrettably relies on a palpable sense of dread over taunt tension. Its ultimate payoffs just have shock value rather than anything more gratifying, thereby drowning out its small comic elements. This is a very familiar brand of storytelling, and Saulnier definitely raises it from feeling pedestrian but it doesn’t go much further than that. For one, I really wish he had shot it himself. While Blue Ruin has much more patience, Saulnier’s own photography in his hands boasted more cinematic shots than the most expensive and lavish blockbusters. It was vivid and atmospheric. Instead of atmosphere, we get noise in Green Room. He trades the camera to Sean Porter, who did an otherwise great job with this year’s Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but it lacks the contrasts and focus to make it as effective despite the abundance of opportunities.

The film makes a wise choice to give every character a hint of humanity, including the supremacists, as this could have otherwise been a very unsympathetic batch of characters to follow. However, muddy motivations make it difficult to latch onto anybody when a few odd decisions are made. Their mutual efforts to outwit aren’t too witty. The dialogue needed a lot of work, since it wasn’t interested in getting deep under the character’s skin, or mostly shredded to give the actors more breathing room. It’s still an engaging film at least. Blue Ruin’s lead Macon Blair is an understated highlight, while Patrick Stewart clearly channels Heisenberg without forcing it. Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat are the least likely punk rockers, but the latter makes it work by being the entrepreneurial boss while Yelchin’s vulnerability makes him a natural underdog. Imogen Poots is usually irritating, but is only mildly irritating here. Unfortunately, Green Room runs thin the further it goes along, and severely lacks the potency that made Blue Ruin a treat. It’s an average thriller, but an above average horror film.