GREEN ROOM (2016) dir. Jeremy Saulnier

CONTENT WARNING: The following review contains discussion of white supremacy (including the appearance and activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups) and repeated references to the Holocaust.

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Neil Kopp, Victor Moyers, Anish Savjani
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots

“What was the name of your second to last song?”

“Uh … ‘T-Toxic Evolution.’”

“It’s fucking hard, man. That’s the one I did her to.”

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GREEN ROOM (2016)

The Ain’t Rights, a traveling punk rock band desperate for cash, know for sure that they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when they reluctantly agree to play at a dive bar where an acquaintance’s cousin works. Tadpole (David W. Thompson) describes the punk rock scene at their new venue as “right-wing,” anathema to rebels Pat (Anton Yelchin, giving a captivating final performance before his sudden death in June 2016), Reece (Joe Cole), Tiger (Callum Turner), and Sam (Alia Shawkat). Still, they reluctantly press on, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, things could not be worse: what Tadpole understated as “right-wing” turns out to be a band of neo-Nazi punks … and that’s only the beginning of the misfortune to come. When Pat stumbles upon the scene of a stabbing, he is detained with the rest of his band and Amber (Imogen Poots), a local punk caught up in the same illicit mess.

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The Ain’t Rights in the wild, high-energy in spite of themselves with the promise of a live show ahead. (Image courtesy of Sean Porter and Jeremy Saulnier.)

What ensues is a horror film that is startlingly timely and unnervingly realistic. GREEN ROOM (2016) prominently features not the archetypal deranged German doctor who so often materializes in horror films (i.e. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE [2009]), bled dry of true racism but nonetheless recognizable as a relic of the Holocaust. Instead, the villains of GREEN ROOM are white supremacists, skinheads bearing swastika tattoos and spitting racial slurs. Interestingly, the image of neo-Nazism that director Jeremy Saulnier portrays onscreen coincides with the images of white supremacy that Americans are increasingly bearing witness to on even mainstream news outlets. After years of white supremacist groups flying under the radar like America’s secret shame, only apparent to the minority populations they terrorize, they are lately emboldened: NBC News features a clip of a white supremacist disowning that very label (even as he insists that Whites “[should] not intermix and mongrelize your seed”) and the CBS News site includes a webpage titled “The KKK Today,” featuring photos of Klansmen donning the white robes of our collective nightmares, arms extended in a sickening imitation of the Hitler salute.

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The gang of detainees (left to right: Amber [Imogen Poots], Pat [Anton Yelchin], Reece [Joe Cole], Tiger [Callum Turner], and Sam [Alia Shawkat]) find themselves in the face of a white supremacist with a vengeance. (Image courtesy of Sean Porter and Jeremy Saulnier.)

Given that there are no characters who are people of color in GREEN ROOM, the white supremacist angle itself doesn’t much play out. Instead, the ruthlessness and violence of Nazis is emphasized, their indifference to human lives being the main source of terror for viewers. GREEN ROOM might not be “scary” in the classic sense, but it’s disturbing as hell. Most horror fans will agree that humans are often the true monsters, this assertion proven in dozens of horror films (MANIAC [1980], HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER [1986], SILENCE OF THE LAMBS [1991]) and never is this more apparent than in GREEN ROOM, where unsettlingly dedicated neo-Nazi punks scarcely bat an eyelash before unleashing killer dogs, gutting a human body like a Thanksgiving turkey, and slaying one of their own in the name of the cause.

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Patrick Stewart as Darcy, the neo-Nazi punks’ genuinely terrifying leader–a marvelous villain. (Image courtesy of Sean Porter and Jeremy Saulnier.)

The punk rock lifestyle of the protagonists also emphasizes the “real-ness” of GREEN ROOM. Unlike the more privileged among us, sheltered in cozy homes with full refrigerators and television with premium cable, the Ain’t Rights are on the move, eschewing traditional life in pursuit of their music. They drink and sleep in their van, scavenge food, and siphon gasoline for lack of funds. True outliers of society, they are often grouchy and unpleasant, shunning human company in favor of a simple existence comprised of music-making and, more than that, bare survival. That music, of course, is also radically real, the heartfelt screams and gratuitous feedback of punk rock a useful metaphor for who these people are—which audiences will appreciate, given that we are given very little background information on the band members individually. They are constitutionally repelled by the artificial—refusing even to use social media to market or to release their music in any format besides vinyl, which would mar the authentic “texture” they desire—rendering their horrific experiences in the neo-Nazi punk lair a sort of ironic wish fulfillment. They have reached the reality that underlies the civilities of modern society: cruelty, violence, and the instinct for self-protection (in both white supremacists generally, who act out of a self-centered desire to protect their dominant status as Whites, and the neo-Nazi punks specific to GREEN ROOM, who use more and more violent means to cover up the atrocities their headquarters house).

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The bar goes from ominous to downright terrifying in the span of an hour … and these punks are forced to apply every survival strategy in their arsenals to escaping annihilation. (Image courtesy of Sean Porter and Jeremy Saulnier.)

GREEN ROOM is artistically made; lush, colorful shots reminding us of the high quality despite a relatively low budget. Though the scenes inside the bar can be visually underwhelming, one should probably expect this. The paint-scrawled black walls in the interior remind me of dives in Akron where I’ve seen punk shows—while not vivid, the visual portrayal seems realistic. In contrast, the brief scenes outside that we see as the band travels (and at the film’s end) are gorgeous, greenery setting off an ominously dark sky.

If I had one major criticism of GREEN ROOM, it would be my dissatisfaction with the way that the plot unfolds. The truth is, viewers are in the dark for a great deal of the film. Much of the time I was distracted, itching for answers to the questions I’d had from the beginning: why did the stabbing occur? What are these “red laces” that Darcy (the neo-Nazi punks’ apparent leader, played by a convincingly creepy Patrick Stewart) keeps referring to? Who is Amber, and why is she, too, detained?

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Amber is presented as a sympathetic character, a friend of the deceased and fellow victim of the neo-Nazis’ sudden wrath. Still, I found her difficult to remotely care about, particularly following her stammered explanation in response to Sam pointing out that she is (or was) one of the neo-Nazis. “I’m not a Nazi,” she snaps, and then hems and haws: “Let’s just say that the people who hurt me … weren’t white.” Huh??? Is this grounds for white supremacy??? I think not. (Image courtesy of Sean Porter and Jeremy Saulnier.)

Of course, answers to these questions arrive in time, but I would argue that the answers come too late, making the journey more a means to the destination than a wholly enjoyable ride. Dropping hints and clarifying several details in a simple line or two would have made for a smoother—and scarier—ride. Still, GREEN ROOM is short enough, at 95 minutes, that the slow unfolding of the plot is far from unbearable—and it is clear why GREEN ROOM was consistently praised by horror fans for the entire latter half of last year.

CONTENT WARNINGS:

  • Animal cruelty
  • Blood
  • Body horror
  • Drug use
  • Holocaust imagery
  • Anti-Semitic hate speech
  • Homophobia
  • Racism and racist hate speech
  • Ableist hate speech

Gore: ★★★★★

Horror: ★★★

Suspense: ★★★★

Terror: ★★★★

Quality: ★★★★

Overall: ★★★★

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