A tiny, playful smile creeps along Jeremy Saulnier’s face when I ask him if he considers Green Room an exploitation movie. He answers before I can even finish the question: “I do,” he says, “but I have no fucking clue what it means.”
His answer is indicative of the young filmmaker’s dual confoundedness and fascination with cinematic labels. He presses on, asking if I know the traditional definition of “exploitation” in the filmic sense. I respond that, originally, it applied to films that capitalize off current trends or extreme subject matter but has since become a catch-all term for art that ruthlessly provokes a visceral response from its audience. He laughs: “That’s what it is! Sure, why not?”
“It’s just too tiring to not define it as exploitation or genre,” he continues. “It can be a horror film to some; it’s a punk thriller; it’s a crime movie. I don’t mind being assigned labels. For me to give my own movies labels, it’s a tough thing to do.”
It’s tough for me, too. As with Saulnier’s previous film, 2013’s stark and beautiful Blue Ruin, Green Room defies categorization by spinning cinematic elegance out of pulp touchstones. In it, a fledgling hardcore punk band called The Ain’t Rights play a gig at a backwoods venue operated by a band of neo-nazis. All’s swell until the band – Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) – see something they shouldn’t. What follows is a tense, bloody showdown between the rockers and a small army of skinheads commanded by a cold, meticulous boss, played by an understated Patrick Stewart.
It’s the stuff of dime-store comics, but Saulnier’s cinematography is lush and immersive, his dialogue authentic, his characters relatable in their insecurity. In a film where the heroes and villains couldn’t be more clear-cut, the film manages to cull empathy and understanding from every corner. And when the weapons begin striking, the resulting wounds aren’t exploitative so much as genuine. Green Room isn’t splatter or giallo or nazisploitation, nor is it an heir apparent to the video nasties of yesteryear. It’s simply, well, realistic.
Or, rather, it embodies “the aesthetic of realism.” Saulnier’s not trying to replicate reality, but to create a world where action and consequence carry a sense of real-world logic. Not every machete lands between the eyes, nor does every act of heroism result in something heroic. “Any false moment just rips me out of a narrative,” he says. “If I sniff any CG, it kinda negates the entire movie. I can get a little hyperbolic with the story, but the rule I have is that the characters have to talk to each other, to be amongst themselves and not the audience. Any kind of veneer that I think is bullshit or glossy, it needs to be extracted.”
But by stripping his scripts of easy outs or what he calls “Invincible Hit Men,” Saulnier makes his writing process that much more complicated. He confesses to “having written myself into corners and really without solutions.” But other times there’s a kind of joy to this approach. I bring up Die Hard, a movie he’s cited as an influence on Green Room. It’s one of my favorite movies, but I’ve never been able to suspend my disbelief enough to accept the moment where John McClane saves himself from plummeting down an elevator shaft by gripping onto the ledge of a tiny air shaft. Saulnier’s eyes light up when I mention it. “I wrote air shafts into Green Room, but they’re not up to code. In this movie, [the characters] were expecting that they were a way out and maybe the audience is, too. But you can’t fit a human through them, so they’re never referred to again. The air shafts are not going to help you.” He laughs. “It was so fun to do that.”
Less fun was Saulnier’s research into the violence of American hate groups, especially in their use of attack dogs, which play a large role in the movie. When a character gets their throat ripped out by a pit-bull, know that what you see onscreen was modeled on Saulnier’s own stomach-churning research. A pall falls over his face when I mention it, and it’s one of many moments that make it clear just how personally invested Saulnier is in this story. He grew up in the hardcore punk scene, after all, screaming in bands and moshing at filthy clubs where skinheads would routinely show up – not to cause trouble, usually, but to just enjoy the music.
“The bands I grew up with were onscreen,” he says. “Some of my high school friends wrote some of the songs in the movie. My friends have fallen asleep behind the wheel in North Carolina. There’s a real Tad and a Tiger and a Sam. As I write, I archive these little memories or experiences. I have a pretty shitty memory, but these little moments just stick out. I think a lot of why I do these very personal films is to archive something and have something to show for it.”
That personal connection makes the film’s fatalities that much more disturbing, not just to the audience but to Saulnier himself. Speaking of the film’s brutal, unceremonious approach to death, he says: “It’s not just to subvert expectations, but to be true to the world I’m building; there’s very little opportunity to give people monologues or to go out like champions.” He takes a moment. “And I would find that if I adhered to the truth in this movie that I don’t like it all the time. When someone would die, it would be because I planned it and the story unfolded in a way where it was inevitable. And then I would kind of mourn their loss.”
He’s not just speaking about the “good guys,” either. Several of the film’s neo-nazis are still just kids, initiates with a fire in their belly and a desire to impress. As such, Saulnier never lets their ruthlessness eclipse their humanity. There’s a moment early on, during The Ain’t Rights’ gig, that we see the skinheads moshing to the band’s music. Saulnier slows it all down, underscoring the sweaty, unbridled revelry with a wash of ethereal electronica that doesn’t entirely wash out the band’s thudding and shrieks. “I felt like there needed to be one moment of synergy and purity and beauty that channels the energy that attracts so many different people,” he says of the moment. “Whatever your perverted ideology might be, whoever you might think you are, the experience can be wonderful.”
It’s a stunning moment, one where the evocative ambience of the Brooke and Will Blair’s score harmonizes perfectly with the hardcore punk that pervades the film’s milieu. But it’s also an encapsulation of Saulnier’s entire aesthetic: the beauty born from the vulgar, the passion that propels nihilistic abandon. Anyone who’s found catharsis in a circle pit will understand.
Horror, exploitation, splatter – catharsis is the desired outcome, after all. Green Room is different, though, because, beyond catharsis, it achieves what most genre films never do: the creeping realization that, if you were in this situation, this is pretty much how it would unfold. How it would look. You would die, violently, unceremoniously. And that’s fucking horrifying.
Saulnier doesn’t listen to punk much anymore. “Mostly children’s music,” he replies when I ask him. “I have introduced Black Sabbath to my three-, five-, and eight-year-old daughters, though. I sing the song “Black Sabbath” to them, and they get scared and ask for more.”
I think Green Room audiences will feel the same way. They might not be able to describe what they just saw, but they’ll be scared. And they’ll ask for more.