19 Jul 2016

Monsters, actually

10:14 am on 19 July 2016

The NZ International Film Festival gets bleak and brutal with Green Room's realist take on the monster genre.

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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

Monsters aren’t scary. People are scary. It’s a line of thinking adopted by much modern horror, and in particular prestige horror. And it’s so hot right now.

From Lorde’s appraisal of The Witch (“the physicality alone/the actors' commitments to surrendering their characters' bodies to possession = way scarier than any monster”) to 10 Cloverfield Lane’s tagline: (“Monsters come in many forms”), look around and you’ll see it everywhere classy horror is found.

Vampires, ghosts, and even supernaturally resilient serial killers are so passe. When will you ever come across one of them? What’s really likely to kill you? The cruelness of humanity, the fragility of the body, the fine line between order and chaos. Traditional horror manifests our fears physically, literally, through the lens of fantasy. But why suspend disbelief, when monsters, actually, are all around?

Jeremy Saulnier certainly seems to be of this persuasion. Green Room, as with his previous film Blue Ruin, is concerned with infusing genre cinema with realism. Like a horrible slice of life, Green Room demonstrates once more Saulnier’s ability to create a plausible nightmare, a story of bad luck and worse luck, from which there is seemingly no escape.

Like Blue Ruin’s revenge story, the premise of Green Room is simple: earnest four-piece punk band The Ain’t Rights, on the last legs of a less-than-lucrative tour, take a gig at a middle of nowhere venue run by neo-Nazis for some quick cash.

From the moment they arrive, it's clearly not a case of if but when things go askew. Sure enough, barely have they finished their set when The Ain’t Rights become unwilling witnesses to some less-than-pleasant skinhead politics. What follows is a fairly classic, albeit particularly gruesome, game of cat and mouse as the band attempt to escape the venue.

As monsters go, Green Room’s are fairly unambiguous. Saulnier knows that playing a usually genial actor against type is extra unsettling and, as ringleader of the gang that hold the band captive, Patrick Stewart is the film’s masterstroke. In physicality and presence, he is more or less as we know him: calm, confident and soft spoken in his signature mellifluous accent. But here, instead of reassuring, it's chilling.

The nefarious group he leads are equally formidable. They are organised. They are ruthless. They are white supremacists for goodness sake, which is some fairly un-nuanced cinematic shorthand for very, very, irredeemably bad.

Weirdly though, as far as the plot goes, in a lot of ways this is not even particularly significant: aside from a vague suggestion that one of the band members is Jewish, there are no people of colour in this film. Nor is any of the violence motivated by anything specifically neo-Nazi-esque, even after the band take to the stage with a cover of Nazi Punks Fuck Off.

No, these monsters are propelled not by ideology but by ruthless practicality, something Saulnier seems to find endlessly more sinister.

Green Room may take its horror from realism, but it's a heavily stylised realism, and for such an ultraviolent film it is more glossy than it is gritty. The Ain’t Rights may be deliberately a little cringey in their affectations, but cinematically so too can Green Room. From the London Calling inspired poster, to the almost cutesy final dialogue, Saulnier’s filmmaking is sincere but a little too contrived, and unfortunately some the tension on which the film relies is lost along the way.

Yet with a clear vision and excellent performances - particularly from the late Anton Yelchin - Green Room is a brutal and thoughtful take on a waking nightmare, the kind of thing that maybe could happen if you were just really, really super unlucky.

What makes a ‘real’ monster? For 10 Cloverfield Lane it was delusional masculine fantasy and desire, propelled by paranoia. In The Witch it was superstition, isolation and burgeoning womanhood.

The motives of Green Room’s villains however are banal, and they are not waging war so much undertaking a clean up. Rather than representing anomalies or exaggerations of humanity, they are the logical conclusion of indifferent pragmatism in ghastly circumstances. Saulnier knows: monsters are scary, and people are monsters.

Green Room is currently screening at the NZ International Film Festival.