“Green Room” is brutal, exploitive, nerve-wracking, and bloody as hell. It’s also one of the best pure genre movies to come down the highway in many a moon: a siege thriller with a novel setting and characters real enough to make you forget the story is as old as the human urge to survive.
The writer-director is Jeremy Saulnier, whose sophomore film, 2013’s “Blue Ruin,” was a family-feud drama that bowled over everyone who had the nerve to see it; this third effort should catapult him closer toward the big time. Saulnier uses violence in fresh, impactful, character-based ways — you cringe in horror from his scenes but you very rarely feel like you’re being played.
The setup is as elemental as a campfire story but “Green Room” dresses it anew. A ragtag punk band of likable losers — they call themselves the Ain’t Rights — is touring the Pacific Northwest, earning beer money if they’re lucky and siphoning enough gas to try and make it back to the East Coast. On a last-ditch tip, they agree to play a club way out in the woods. Run by skinheads. Probably neo-Nazis. Best not to play your leftist material.
They do, of course — they’re punks — which further endears us to the band’s winsome guitarist leader Pat (Anton Yelchin, Chekov in the new “Star Trek” movies), mother-hen bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat), singer Tiger (Callum Turner), and hot-headed drummer Reece (Joe Cole). Then they witness something pretty awful — something they shouldn’t have seen — and are forced to hole up in the club’s green room while the rough boys outside figure out what to do with them.
Around this point, Saulnier reveals his ace in the hole: The club’s owner and majordomo, the philosophical father figure to this roiling army of white supremacists, is the erudite Darcy, played by Sir Patrick Stewart, one-time captain of the Starship Enterprise and current Officer of the British Empire. The actor knows he has a piece of red meat here, but he’s too smart to overplay the role. The venom just leaks out in Darcy’s clipped, martial instructions to his troops. Stewart’s Britishness helps: Darcy has a mess on his hands, and the English know how to clean up messes.
After dispensing with cellphones and the local cops with impeccable logic, “Green Room” spends most of its time on one side of the title door or another. Darcy’s minions have to convince Pat’s band that they mean no harm; Pat’s band has to convince Darcy’s minions that they believe them. No one trusts anyone else. The band has a hostage, of sorts, in the club’s bouncer Big Justin (Eric Edelstein), and an ally in Amber (Imogen Poots), an angry lost girl who just saw her best friend get murdered. Half the movie is high-tension stalemate as those in the green room try to keep from panicking and those outside line up their various final solutions: guns, attack dogs, blank-eyed teen foot soldiers.
But Saulnier knows how to choreograph stalemate — he gives us enough characters to keep us busy and he gives them enough quirks to keep them interesting. And he really knows how to choreograph the mayhem that ensues when stalemate finally breaks. Some characters make it out of “Green Room” alive and some don’t, but the casualties are reasonably unpredictable, and there are betrayals and cabals on Darcy’s side of the door as well.
The siege genre is as classically rigorous as anything by Bach — theme and variations all the way to resolution — and Saulnier doesn’t try to inflate the film’s carnage with tragic resonance or other hypocrisies (the way some felt he did in “Blue Ruin”). Violence in “Green Room” is just bad. Unfortunately for its heroes and for us all, it’s also sometimes inevitable.
Aside from a final line of dialogue that’s a little too flip (given that a sizable portion of the cast is dead by then), the movie puts the audience through a wringer with emotions that feel exhausted but earned. To its credit, even the villains remain human — horrible, but human — except for Stewart’s Darcy, who’s the smartest of the bunch and so has managed to think himself beyond humanity. Against him is Yelchin’s Pat, wide-eyed and trying desperately to improvise his way out of hell. Somewhat randomly, both actors have ties to the “Star Trek” universe. The gritty, gruesome thrill of “Green Room” lies in seeing which of their characters will live long and prosper.
Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Starring Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots. At Kendall Square. 94 minutes. R (strong brutal graphic violence, gory images, language, some drug content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.