No matter how diverse the Oscars strive to be, there will always be certain types of movies that stand no chance whatsoever of being recognized by the Academy. Action, comedy and horrors are the obvious examples, with most voters bizarrely unable to critically evaluate the genres in the same way they would a drama. The occasional choice would slip through by their pedigree alone – Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street or the star packed ensemble of The Big Short – but for the most part it requires something exceptional to make the cut where a mediocre drama could sneak by unhindered. The margin for error is absurdly small, with odds weighted against them even if they do somehow manage to scrape into the equation.
Other times it’s not the genre that keeps it out of award contention, but the movie itself. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room was a critical favourite from the very beginning, a tense and brutal thriller about a young punk band caught in a quickly escalating confrontation with white supremacists. Playing like a scungy relative of the John Carpenter classic Assault On Precinct 13, it’s a siege movie laced with squeamishly graphic violence and a live performance of the Dead Kennedys favourite Nazi Punks Fuck Off – two things sure to ward off mainstream audiences let alone the period piece loving Academy. This is part action, part thriller, part horror – a dirty punk rock movie with only a couple of punk rock songs in it. The visuals reek of filth and grime, a lingering stench that won’t wash off for days. It’s a disturbing intensity that stays with the audience afterwards.
And its brilliance from the very beginning. Saulnier bathes the film in a dark and murky palette, a gritty reality that matches the band themselves. The film opens haphazardly, almost like an accident. A band called The Ain’t Rights waking up disorientated in their van – singer Tiger played by Callum Turner, Alia Shawkat as the guitarist Sam, Joe Cole as drummer Reece, and the bassist Pat played by the late Anton Yelchin. The engine’s been running all night, leaving the van’s petrol empty and Pat and Sam syphoning more from a car nearby. It’s an almost dreamy opening, one that extends through to the band’s first show on their tour. They’re briefly shown playing a set, tearing through a hardcore cover to a tiny diner crowd. The live performances are a mixture of live audio and artful shot making – later in the film Saulnier opts not to have the audio of their music over the top at all, slowing the vision down to an atmospheric soundtrack instead. He moves the camera slowly from the stage to the mash of people throwing themselves against each other in the crowd. It’s an excellent technique that only adds to the tension.
After the cancellation of an upcoming show the band are forced to squeeze in the next available gig, one that unfortunately happens to be at an isolated venue run by skinhead racists. Reluctant from the get go, The Ain’t Rights open their set with the previously mentioned Dead Kennedys track to an expectedly lukewarm response. The confrontational song choice is initially suggested by Pat, the least antagonistic member of the group, in a subtle sign of things to come. Eager to leave immediately after playing, the band stumble upon a murder and quickly lock themselves in the relative safety of the green room. Things only spiral from there, leading to the introduction of skinhead leader Darcy. The ensuing chaos continues for the rest of the film.
This is electrifying cinema, a buzzsaw of viciousness and terror. The characters stumble through each scenario desperate and uncertain, and in a nice change of pace from the norm they display reasonable common sense and surprisingly savvy survival instincts. The decision making isn’t always the best, but it’s still a refreshing change that gives the group immediate credibility, making the events later on just that touch more impactful. Saulnier layers on the gore too, but each action scene is handled so perfectly that it never feels unnecessary. With the barricaded green room under siege from outside the claustrophobia grows for band and audience alike. It’s all filmed beautifully, a series of long takes and roaming shots emphasizing the cramped space of the room itself and the packed hallway outside. Saulnier manages the mood of each act expertly, the awkward discomfort of the band when they first arrive at the venue and see its occupants to the desperation and panic they feel once things kick into high gear. The second half is unyielding.
Upon release the bulk of the praise the cast received was deservedly directed at Sir Patrick Stewart in his against type role as Darcy. He gives a terrifying performance, strong, stoic and convincing even in his most unforgiveable moments. Imogen Poots is solid as the band’s lone ally, but it’s the members themselves who impress the most, with Shawkat, Turner and Cole all great. Unfortunately it wasn’t until Yelchin’s death months later that his performance earned a rightful re-evaluation. A versatile young actor with a key role in a major action franchise amongst an ever growing resume of impressive independent film roles, his turn as Pat here has since been recognized as the best work of his career. His is the character who evolves the most throughout, opening the film with hilariously forced pretension, becoming more vulnerable and shell-shocked as events unfold until finding his strength late. It’s the lasting performance here, a heartbreaking reminder of his huge talent.
Green Room finished the year on many best of lists, but was never a chance to win any high profile awards. This is dark, uncomfortable viewing, an onslaught of brutality and nastiness, all machetes, shotguns, attack dogs and gaping wounds. Yelchin’s Pat valiantly offers hopeful anecdotes in the face of relentless adversity, each time quickly dismissed by other characters in the sheer bleakness of the situation. It’s a metaphor for the film as a whole – any optimism is quickly destroyed, most of the heroism bluntly shut down. Saulnier has crafted a genuinely unsettling and completely surprising movie. Seemingly arriving out of nowhere, it’s blown the minds of almost everyone who has seen it. You leave the cinema knowing for certain this could never win any major awards. It’s also immediately clear this could possibly be your new favourite movie.