"Play your early stuff," is the advice given to the punk band The Ain't Rights when their dirt-broke, gas-siphoning tour lands a last-minute gig at an Oregon backwoods roadhouse in Jeremy Saulnier's brisk and brutal genre exercise "Green Room."
The tip from the spikey-haired 'zine reporter who's set up the show (an excellent David W. Thompson, from "Win Win") isn't because the crowd will be expecting the band's nonexistent "hits," but because he knows the angriest, heaviest tunes will go down best. They'll be playing for skinheads.
The band, a grimy group of punks (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) from Virginia limping across the country, shrug. They've had Neo-Nazis at their shows before. When they drive along a remote dirt road in their beat-up van, they're still not intimidated by the swastikas and Confederate flags around them. They provocatively open with the Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks F--- Off."
The trouble doesn't come then, but after the show backstage, where the band returns to the green room to find a girl on the ground with a knife in her head. Things go south quickly, and the band is confronted with something far more hardcore than anything in their record collection.
The road movie that "Green Room" started out to be veers abruptly into a siege film as the head Neo-Nazi (Patrick Stewart, using his refined cordiality for menace) sends waves of "true believers" into the roadhouse to dispatch the witnesses.
"Green Room" is Saulnier's follow-up to his self-financed breakthrough "Blue Ruin," a lean and riveting revenge tale also acted out by a novice in violence (Macon Blair, who pops here, too). The writer-director's latest confirms him as a rising filmmaker who can crisply craft John Carpenter-style atmosphere, mete out unnervingly merciless pain for his characters, and assemble robust, earthy thrillers with relatively meager means.
I like the early scenes of "Green Room" best. In brief glimpses, Saulnier fully captures the experience of a struggling band on the road: waking up somewhere different each night, debating favorite music, making fart jokes in the van. It's not very hardcore of me to say this, but I wish it continued on this plane, rather than settle into a gruesome and protracted battle — as well-executed as the carnage is. Once it enters the grindhouse, it stays there.
But you can't have a siege thriller without a siege, and "Green Room" is certainly among the genre's finest examples. Guns are employed, but the most chilling violence comes from teeth and blades on split-open flesh. It's not pleasant, nor is it meant to be.
In such moments, the earlier boasts of the band about their lack of social media presence — "When you take it all virtual, you lose the texture" — have come back to haunt them. You want texture? "Green Room" has it.
What: "Green Room." Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. An A24 release
With: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Patrick Stewart, Callum Turner, Joe Cole
Stars (out of four):
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "strong brutal graphic violence, gory images, language and some drug content"
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Playing at: Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough)