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"Green Room," Jeremy Saulnier's latest small-budget, big-ambition picture, starts with a great pulpy premise. The "Blue Ruin" writer/director this time strands a four-person punk-metal band called the Ain't Rights in Oregon, down to their last few bucks, syphoning gas to keep their van rolling and ready to head back home to Virginia. They get a tip about a short-notice gig at a backwoods venue that'll pay good money, with the catch that maybe there could be some skinhead tendencies in the crowd.
They bite that bullet and drive into the forest to a big corrugated-tin building on a gravel lot. They're skeeved out by the locals but play their set (starting with a cover of the Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks, Fuck Off") and are ready to fold their money and split. Then, one of their members ducks back into the green room and finds the next band on the bill standing around a woman on the floor, freshly dead, a knife jutting out of her skull.
What follows, then, is a tight, terrible standoff wherein all parties involved just want the day to end, and which you, an intelligent fan of taut, clever horror, will immediately want to watch a second time. The band — played by Alia Shawcat, Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole and Callum Turner — closes ranks in the green room, while outside, the gentleman-Nazi bar owner (Patrick Stewart) does the same. The band gets a bit of a wild card in Imogen Poots, a friend of the deceased and a clever enough vet of this particular music scene to be a major asset. And then you're off on a game of escape-or-be-killed.
In its tone and pacing, which are spot-on, "Green Room" masks the technical brilliance quietly on display, as the camera holds you in a small room, in a cavernous bar, in the grand forest. Claustrophobia hangs on every shot, the desperation of the cornered. Together they know they're animals in a cage surrounded by a small battalion of boots-and-braces thugs toting machetes and knives and pistols and, as they learn in the worst possible way, trained pit bulls.
That last one is pivotal to creating a horror movie where in truth a true-crime movie could live, or a dramatic thriller. Saulnier's choice to introduce dogs gives a nightmarish flavor to the otherwise rational actions of the band members and their tormentors. The great promise of a flick like "Green Room," which moves its action with character and plotting rather than sadism and gratuitous gore, is that it can show the way to a genre-bending version of horror. Beyond the endless march of haunted house (or haunted doll, or haunted camera, or haunted hospital) movies, or the person-peeling exploits of Eli "Hostel" Roth, or even something where maniacs terrorize teens for maniac reasons, there's a sort of everyday horror that's easier to embrace, because it feels — well, if not likely, at least plausible, like an urban legend in motion. Such is the poisoned mousetrap that Saulnier has constructed in the Pacific Northwest.
Stick around through the credits to see some of the most motley "special thanks" credits in memory, ranging from government departments to specific hardcore bands. Here, Saulnier succeeds in cutting out a slice of a real subculture and building around it in a genuine way. The bandmates don't conform to some Scooby-Dooesque hierarchy; it's not clear who's leading and who's fated to survive. The deaths do come though, and maimings, and other highly unpleasant moments of visceral fear (and actual viscera). This is vital not only to exciting storytelling — without a clear prescription for how things are going to shake out, anything feels possible — but to winding an audience into an actual knot in their seats. Saulnier builds a tiny, steely universe that allows you to ask, for each character, "What would I do in that situation?" And the answer comes back, again and again, you'd probably die, and horribly at that, but you never do know.
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