When John Carpenter made Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976, he readily acknowledged the influence he drew from George A. Romero in crafting the homogeneous zombie-like horde of gang members laying siege to an L.A. police station. This served to dehumanise the antagonists, and side-stepped the responsibility of delving into the knotty politics of escalating gang violence. It’s an interesting point of comparison to Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature. If his second film Blue Ruin was his subversive genre riff on Death Wish, then new cult thriller Green Room is Saulnier’s Assault on Precinct 13. However, his own approach to the political underpinnings of an excruciating punks vs skins bloodbath is vastly different to Carpenter’s cops vs gangs.
Both films share an apparent lack of engagement with the socio-political and ideological motivations of their chosen villains. In Saulnier’s case, though, he actively utilises the loaded imagery of white supremacists to craft his neo-Nazi baddies led by a disconcertingly soft-spoken Sir Patrick Stewart as Darcy Banker. These are not faceless goons, but definitively – and chillingly – real neo-Nazis that one might assume to be the provocation for political discourse in some sense or other. What follows doesn’t interrogate ideology. Rather, Saulnier uses the hierarchical structures of such a militant right-wing movement to provide a brutally terrifying enemy and to question the reality of who these people truly are beneath their jackboots and braces.
A clash of dogmas might appear to be in the offing when the protagonists, a likeable but marginal punk band called The Ain’t Rights, open their set in a skinhead nightclub with The Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks Fuck Off. Instead, Saulnier subverts expectations – as is his wont – and the band win over the previously glowering crowd with their own hardcore set. They are paid handsomely for their time and it is not until guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) stumbles into the green room to find a body that serious trouble begins to rear its head. Ideology is not what is ultimately at stake here but self-preservation – on both sides.
It opens Saulnier up to criticism, particularly in the current climate. Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency has actively stoked flames of hatred and tacitly encouraged groups such as the one portrayed here. That Saulnier doesn’t engage directly with their beliefs will be problematic for a lot of people, despite the genre trappings. That said, Green Room does lay bare the self-serving nature of these extreme ideologies and how they are co-opted for power and control as much as, if not more than, being deeply held. What’s more, it does so with the same brand of queasy, realistic violence that punctuated his nail-biting sophomore feature.
Saulnier’s penchant for subverting conventions continues – up until, perhaps, the slightly more predictable finale – and the grimy, dingy, swastika-laden club is a suitably claustrophobic setting for high-concept fare. Both this and Blue Ruin have revelled in transplanting audacious genre tropes into a stomach-churningly authentic world and the timeliness of this release (it has been in gestation since before the recent developments in the political landscape made it ultra-current) only serves to emphasise it. It’s nasty, nerve-wracking and not for the squeamish, but Green Room may ultimately be coloured by how you respond to its unusual perspective on the portrayal of hateful doctrine.