My favorite movie of Anton Yelchin’s is one I’m not sure I’ll be ready to rewatch anytime soon. That movie is Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s taut, taxing, brutally violent 2015 thriller about a punk band who are held hostage by a gang of neo-Nazis (and the man who plays their leader is, in a twisted bit of casting, none other than Patrick Stewart). This film was difficult enough to watch before its lead actor was killed in a freak accident on Sunday in Los Angeles, and something about watching it now feels incredibly morbid (if you’ve so much as seen the trailer, you can believe that nobody in this movie goes entirely unscathed). I’m not sure what will happen to Green Room or if this tragedy will affect its legacy. But Anton Yelchin was great in it.
Yelchin played Pat, the moody bassist of the fictitious Virginia hardcore band the Ain’t Rights. (When a guy interviewing the band mistakenly says they’re from D.C., Alia Shawkat’s character corrects him with perfect scene-kid snobbishness. “Actually we’re from Arlington.” An upstart punk band would totally brag about being from the hometown of Dischord Records; Saulnier knows his shit.) Of any of the band members, Pat is the one least comfortable with hitching his identity to the punk scene. In that radio interview, when each of the Ain’t Rights are asked to name their “desert island band,” the rest of them toss out the expected answers — Slayer, the Misfits — but Pat is enough of an individual to say he’s not really sure. He’s not out to impress anybody; he just wants to play some tunes. The Russian-born Yelchin captured Pat’s postadolescent indeterminacy with a lot of nuance and heart. Although the tone is quite different, Pat’s arc reminds me a bit of Jake, the protagonist in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! — just a normal dude trying on the trappings of different cliques and subcultures in an attempt to figure out who he actually is. Which, as he moved through action hits to indie flicks often within the span of a couple months (in 2013 he was in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive, and The Smurfs 2), seems like an apt way to describe Yelchin’s career, too.
In Green Room, though, a series of violent events forces Pat to grow up in a hurry; under the gun (literally), he must figure out who he is, what he stands for, and how much he’ll do to stay alive. He conveys both sensitivity and a learned toughness — the great horror of the film is that we know we must watch the Everyman become a killer himself to survive. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that Yelchin showed the tension between these two dynamics brilliantly in an unexpected plot twist that is equal parts Jean Yanne in Godard’s Weekend and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
An actor like Yelchin, who’d worked consistently since 2001 and frenetically in the last few years, didn’t really need to make a movie like Green Room. With a recurring role as Chekov in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot (he will appear in the third of the series, Star Trek Beyond, which is slated for release next month), he certainly could have stuck to blockbusters, or at least to less grueling projects. But Green Room was a typical, atypical choice for him; he seemed to have a range and a sense of curiosity all too rare for an actor of his generation. By sheer coincidence, Stewart’s presence in Green Room serves as a reminder that it takes a particularly talented actor to be believable as both a Trekkie and a punk. We just lost one of them way too soon.