GRINDHOUSE RETURNS IN GREEN ROOM, JEREMY SAULIER'S HYPER-VIOLENT NIHILISM-FEST
In my career as a horror journalist, I’ve spent a good deal of time writing about grindhouse movies—what they were, what they weren’t, and what contemporary films aping the style get it right and which are simply pedestrian imitations of what filmmakers think a grindhouse movie was. For the uninitiated, grindhouse films were a peculiar subgenre that cropped up between the 1960s and 1980s, aimed nominally towards those who frequented the theaters along 42nd Street in Manhattan, New York. Most often horror oriented but also including dark dramas, action movies, and straight-up smut flicks, they were loud, nasty, violent, and amoral—gritty tales with their roots in the pulp magazines of the 40s and 50s, catering to the audience’s basest desires and most misanthropic beliefs. Over the past several years, a new crop of young filmmakers have come out with their own “grindhouse” movies—liberally applying the term to a wide range of hyper-violent, over-the- top, often tongue-in- cheek horror films more informed by the silliness of the B-movie crazes of the 1950s and 1980s. Blame it on Tarantino: Based on his own understanding of the term, and his belief that a handful of zany, largely California and foreign-produced grindhouse films were representative of the genre, he unleashed the Grindhouse double feature on the world, apparently crippling any hopes for a legitimate grindhouse revival by completely redefining the term.
Until now: Because Green Room is perhaps the great grindhouse movie of the Millennial Generation.
Desperate to raise the money to make it to a show in Washington, D.C., struggling punk act The Ain’t Rights accept a gig at what’s best described as a neo-Nazi Elk’s lodge. Located in the middle of the woods in a glorified shack, it is populated by leather-clad, swastika-covered ghouls who’ve been pushed, literally, to the outer edges of society by their extremism. Though the show goes better than expected, the after party does not: returning to their dressing room, the band inadvertently walks in on the aftermath of a domestic squabble turned deadly. Barricading themselves in the room, the Ain’t Rights find themselves engaging in a violent standoff with the Nazis, who call in their leader, Darcy (Patrick Stewart) to clean up the increasingly bloody mess.
I have to get it out of the way: Yes, this is the film where Patrick Stewart plays a neo-Nazi; and, sadly, no, that doesn’t come off as cool as it sounds. The role of Darcy simply doesn’t permit him to bring any real nuance or menace to the character. The role is short on screen time, and what little there is doesn’t have him doing much more than engaging in legitimately civil conversation with the punks, no matter how insidious his intentions really are. It isn’t that Stewart isn’t capable of being menacing—his turn in PBS’s production of Macbeth is bone-chillingly terrifying, and anyone who wants to see Stewart go full- on bombastic evil should check it out. Rather, it seems that Stewart took the role of Darcy simply to work with a new generation of young creative minds. That’s not a bad motivation, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing, either. He doesn’t channel cunning evil here: he channels Captain Picard on a really, really bad day.
Indeed, Stewart’s casting sums up Green Room’s great failure: It’s filled with ideas that, while good concepts in and of themselves, aren’t executed well enough or with enough meaning to make them great. This isn’t to say that Green Room is a bad film: There are a number of well executed, tense sequences, with much of the movie playing like an even more claustrophobic (but talkier) version of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. It’s the moments when the band is completely sealed in the room and forced to try and negotiate with or outsmart the Nazis that the narrative really shines, with Saulnier allowing the tension to explode in a number of stalk-and- slash set pieces in which the band attempts to flee. Yet for all of these successes, Jeremy Saulnier is also clearly a director who believes in breaking convention, and like so many other current filmmakers, when he does so, it’s for its’ own sake. While it makes for a quick scare here or there, it doesn’t take the story in any necessarily interesting directions. There comes a point near the film’s halfway mark in which multiple characters die in rapid succession; at another point, a heretofore minor character suddenly gains relevance to the story, only to die within literal seconds of the revelation. The quick brutality makes for some good jump moments, but, past that initial shock, all of the convention breaking only complicates the narrative in a frustrating way.
That aside, Green Room does succeed in one very important respect: It is a true grindhouse movie, delivering exactly what the grindhouse movie promised its’ audiences forty years ago, in its’ purest and most undiluted form. There is no point to the film; no commentary on the state of the world, no cutting political message. There is simply a violent, life-and- death struggle between two groups of people, one amoral, the other evil, and in the end, no one in particular emerges as a hero. There are only survivors. While Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is a morality tale about the futility of vengeance, Green Room really is just a story about punks trying to escape a group of homicidal Nazis; and, in a way, that pointlessness sort of becomes the point. Anyone in search of a deep, genre-defying horror film will probably be disappointed; but going into Green Room with no expectations but to see something rough and violent will reward the viewer with quite an experience.