‘Green Room’ conjures enthralling skinhead terror

5/5 stars

Earlier this year, I came away from the ensemble cast cop drama “Triple 9” with a lukewarm response. 

It painted its world exclusively with dark shades, making the audience wallow in the misery of its slimy, crime-riddled Atlanta tenements with no real tension or payoff.

“Green Room” takes that formula and makes it work. The low-budget action thriller is the epitome of efficiency, constructing an impeccably tight narrative around the simple idea that neo-Nazis are scary.

Its darkness serves the purpose of putting the audience in a place no one should ever want to go. Its characters, like the audience, want nothing more than to get the hell out at any cost, and seeing it through to the end proves to be one of the more enjoyable cinematic experiences of 2016 so far.

The Ain’t Rights are a small-time punk band playing the smallest of venues for the slimmest of payouts in Oregon. When the opportunity arises to get decent pay from a backwoods skinhead bar, they take it because they’re care-free kids who need money.

As you would expect from any situation involving white supremacists, things go real bad real fast. Our hapless heroes need to use their collective combat experience (a big fat zero among the four of them) to escape from this destitute environment.

And destitute it is, indeed. Confederate flags, iron crosses and swastikas adorn the foul walls of this poorly lit and probably not temperature-controlled establishment. 

The set decoration is outstanding, with the cinematography making sure not to overemphasize or linger on any of those elements for too long. 

It all exists just on the edge of the frame. You know it’s there, you know what it represents and you know that this is not a good place to be. It’s one of the more vividly established film settings I’ve seen in a good while.

I would characterize “Green Room” as an action film, but it stands out by deliberately subverting the “badass” nature of the genre. These characters are wholly incompetent in both their decision-making and combat prowess, but in ways that feel real.

I never wanted to scream at them for doing something like I do when I watch horror movies. They’re just kids in a horrific, but unfortunately very real, situation, and they act accordingly.

It’s a graphically violent film, but the acts of violence make up a surprisingly small portion of the movie’s running time. It all happens, again, either on the edge of the frame or off screen, as the film chooses to have us deal with the consequences rather than gross us out with gore.

It all works because of the remarkable cast. Anton Yelchin is terrific as the meek bandmate who ends up taking charge, and it’s always good to see Alia Shawkat (Maeby from “Arrested Development”) as the band’s lone female member.

Most importantly, however, is Patrick Stewart. He lends his venerable presence as the leader of this band of neo-Nazis, perfectly inhabiting the role. 

He’s a fascinating villain, more calm and calculating than you would expect out of a skinhead ringleader. It was a wise choice to have Stewart be nuanced and measured in his performance instead of bombastic.

“Green Room” never attempts to provide a heavy-handed message or be more edgy than its contemporaries for the sake of gory peacocking. It’s simply a wonderfully directed, acted and paced story of decent people in a tough situation.

It’s the perfect realization of what it wants to be, and that’s all I want from any movie.