Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 13, 2016 9:31 am 
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Natural born violence

In Saulnier's Green Room, his bloodier and more complicated followup to Blue Ruin, a young punk rock band (The Ain’t Rights), desperate for a venue, perform at an isolated Oregon hangout of white supremacist Nazi skinheads, and when they stumble on a scene of violence, find themselves trapped backstage and forced to fight their way out. Green Room is remarkable for the realism of its scarily clumsy, improvisational action, involving not only guns and attack dogs, but knives of different lengths, a broken off florescent light tube, and a fire extinguisher. The approach to mayhem has a similar DIY quality to Blue Ruin's, in which the protagonist carries out a revenge killing, very clumsily, with a small knife, in a men's room.

But the paradox is that while Green Room has impressed critics and will gain Saulnier a wider audience, it's a pretty dumb genre movie, however technically accomplished. It's a tour de force without much of a brain, somewhat like the Filipino movie The Raid: Redemption (2011). Blue Ruin's solitary revenge guy, though inept and unappealing, at least had a motive and a back story. These Nazi skinheads really don't and neither do the punk band members, except for telling what their desert island band would be. As circumstances grow more extreme they ramp down their choices to names like Prince and Madonna; it's Saulner's little running joke, as is a meandering attack dog who in the end instead of attacking, flops down plaintively on a fallen skinhead. There is this strain of dark humor that runs through and enlivens the proceedings.

Narrative content is replaced by pure in-the-moment physicality, particularly images of people getting sliced up; of desperate efforts to frighten, maim, or kill opponents: there are skinheads who're just as terrified as the punk musicians. The gunshots are louder than usual, and there aren't so many of them, which also makes them seem more real. The punkers are greatly outnumbered, yet they put up a surprisingly good fight. (If they didn't, there'd be no movie.) Patrick Stewart as Darcy, the white supremacist in charge, makes a strong impression giving orders, though I always felt he was somewhat out of place, still an Englishman, slumming enjoyably in a B-Picture, tossing out lines.

The complexity Saulnier achieves is that of real chaotic violence. You identify with the band. They have been introduced, showing their dire poverty -- syphoning other people's gas -- and an underground radio interview, then the concert. You feel so close to them that you're almost in the "green room" when they're first trapped there. Their most visible member is Pat, the bassist, played by Anton Yelchin. He and the other members, the singer, Tiger (Callum Turner, also a Brit), the guitarist, Sam (Alia Shawkat) and drummer, Reece (Joe Cole), don't seem much like punk musicians, but they do look desperate. They do serious damage to the skinheads, but they start getting picked off. The other notable person in the room is the scruffy blond Amber, played by English actress Imogen Poots, a Nazi moll trapped with the band members, who somehow becomes Pat's ironic ally.

The trouble with authentic chaos is that it makes no sense when you're in the thick of it, and I confess to being pretty lost through much of this movie, and not understanding the music. So I know only from outside sources that the sound track features tracks from Hochstedder and Syphilitic Lust, and that while somehow the band concert goes okay, they start off by antagonizing the crowd by playing a cover of The Dead Kennedys' 1981 single “Nazi Punks F–k Off." And though we switch back and forth to the POV of Darcy and his henchmen, and the "red shoestring" crew he calls in as destroyers, I could never quite understand what Darcy was up to with his shifting strategies and deadlines -- while The Ain't Rights can barely figure out what they're up to themselves.

This time Saulner used Sean Porter as dp instead of doing his own cinematography. That was because he needed to focus entirely on directing all the complicated action in close quarters. And the precision with which he does that, the way he makes his genre action seem fresh and un-Hollywood yet technically accomplished, is impressive. Again however I need someone else to explain the style of this work, so I can only report what Guy Lodge says in his Cannes Variety review, that Saulner skews away "from the cool John Carpenter pastiche of Adam Wingard and Ti West, taking inspiration instead from a messier strain of what the British term 'video nasties.'" I can't quibble with the term "video nasties," but Green Room, for all its intriguing indigestibility, feels very much like a film to me, not like a "video."

But while it's sort of cleansing, like a particularly violent massage followed by a sauna and a roll in the snow and ice, Green Room isn't very satisfying, because it's indigestible, and largely incomprehensible.

Green Room, 94 mins, debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight May 2015, showing in at least 20 other international festivals. Picked up by the distributor A24, it gets its US theatrical release 15 April 2016 (NYC Regal Union Square, Loews Lincoln Square, LA ArcLight Hollywood), expanded nationally 29 April. (French release 27 April.)


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