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Don’t let this fun pic fool you.

Green Room is a nasty, gut-punch of a movie that made me, a guy who doesn’t think of himself as squeamish or easily shocked, squirm in my fucking seat. The knot in the stomach is real, folks. If this description makes the movie sound like a cup of tea that isn’t yours, you’re probably right. Though it’s an impeccable film, one of the best of the year easily, it is also not for everyone.

Green Room isn’t a stirring tale of heroism set against an elemental evil, but rather an intimate portrait of savage, everyday violence. The realness of it is what gets under your skin, rather than the body count or the diabolical nature of the bad guys’ plans. This as far from a superhero movie version of violence as you can get. This is violence right up in your face, of the kind you can very easily imagine happening to you should you ever be in as wrong a place at as wrong a time as the protagonists of this movie.

That’s basically a long way of saying that Green Room is incredibly effective. Atmosphere and tension blaze through this movie, punctuated by violence that you may never be able to fully get out of your head.

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RIP Anton Yelchin.

The setup is deceptively simple, so deceptive you might wind up overthinking it or waiting for a twist that never comes (though there are definitely twists). There’s this scrappy punk band, (played by Yelchin, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, and Callum Turner) doing a down and dirty tour of the U.S. They’re a throwback just as the movie is largely a throwback. Along the way they stop to siphon gas and do small-time radio interviews where they answer questions like “what’s your desert island band?” One of their would-be interviewers has also set up a gig for them that falls through. Desperate to please them, he tries to set them up with a cousin of his who hangs out with some rough white power types. Desperate to get paid and keep going, the band accepts.

They push it early and often, playing “Nazi Punks Die” and embodying their “fuck off” attitude toward a bunch of obvious redneck assholes. Only, there’s slightly more going on here and they stumble onto a situation that quickly escalates into a tense standoff. Even as the “authorities” in charge of the venue seem to be trying to deescalate, the band quickly picks up on the fact that they are in serious danger.

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The cool thing is: they are all scared, but also varying degrees of tough and brave. That is the basis on which they are tested.

They take refuge in the titular green room, behind a locked door and with a gun and a hostage that they can only hope will ensure their safety. On the other side, the boss man Darcy (a quietly terrifying Patrick Stewart) slowly gets the pieces in place for a cover up. He is ruthless, tactical, and efficient. We get tantalizing clues about the organization and precision of his operation, which is poised to brutally kill these kids.

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, who last blew people away with Blue Ruin, balances the tension on the edge of a knife before the point of no return. When it comes, it’s like a jagged unpredictable wave that smashes in and scurries back only to smash in again. Throughout the film, the survivors of each onslaught return to the green room again and again trying to make it out alive. They do incredibly brave, stupid, and dangerous things to survive but they’re always playing in Darcy’s matter-of-fact, brutal world.

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Their only ally is the traumatized, unhinged Amber (Imogen Poots).

Though I’m not sure this movie has any profound meaning beyond its own storytelling, it’s not simply a “night of survival” movie. The tables are eventually turned and the hunters become the hunted, but not before the audience is taken to the brink of tolerance for the horrific and unyielding violence that is dealt on people we know don’t deserve it. And maybe that is the meaning. Maybe Saulnier is interacting with the audience’s own tolerance for brutality and banal evil, long before he ever heightens the proceedings to a place that feels much more “genre” than the first half or 2/3’s of the film. This control is also what allows him to pull off everything that happens, never leaving you anywhere other than fully engaged. In spite of the horror and that knot in your stomach, you can’t look away because you want so very badly for things to turn out okay, and barring that, for justice to be done. Hell, maybe that’s the meaning too.

Not only the intangibles work here, though. Everything is on point from the performances to the lighting. Saulnier has a great eye and the cinematography in his films have so far been one of the things that raises his work to an aesthetically arresting level that can occasionally belie the horror he’s showing you. And make no mistake, Green Room is a horror movie… just of a kind we don’t really see any more. Which is maybe why even a not-so-squeamish guy like me was gasping for air and digging my nails into my palm for half the movie.

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