“Well, killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple. It’s bloody and awful. And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere.” – Sam Peckinpah
Punk rock is a figurative form of violent deconstruction. At the start of Green Room, our functional heroes are on a bootstrap tour as a hardcore band called The Ain’t Rights. Initially, the film introduces the band as a collection of characters by way of a radio station interview, in which Pat (Anton Yelchin) explains the band’s pursuit of a bare energy, the live performance moment wherein the music feels like a movement against an established standard. The film weights the band’s ambition with fictional insight, decorating their conversation, their clothes, their van, and their venues with memorabilia and logos from legendary real-life punk bands. The Ain’t Rights come from the same region and scene as some of their endorsed influences: Bad Brains, SOA, and Minor Threat from the initial D.C. Hardcore era of of the late 1970s, early 1980s and later acts like Fugazi and Rites of Spring, all performers known for using a deconstructed formula of rock principles – basic power chords, wrenching vocals, keep-up-if-you-can drumming – to artistically assault commercial studio music and right leaning federal and global politics.
In a narrative sense, at least with his last two films, Jeremy Saulnier is the film director’s version of a hardcore punk artist, using the basic chords of the standard thriller plot-structure and the wild percussive beats of screen violence. Green Room, his follow up to his 2014 breakthrough Blue Ruin, nakedly displays both the deconstruction and its purpose. A lot has been said about the gratuitousness and jarring lack of reserve in the violence of his films, and the critical adoration has placed him in great company. From Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, there exists no shortage of movies praised as revolutionary for their fearless screen treatment of violence. But Saulnier’s work is of a rarer sort still, his violence perhaps not meant to be celebrated for its artistic or stylistic merit. Rather, Saulnier treats the violence upon his good and bad characters with reckless, un-stylistic immediacy and more patiently examines the real after-damage of each incident. Saulnier is less concerned with how the violence looks as a movie device and more concerned with why violence manifests and what effect it has on individuals.
In both aforementioned Saulnier films, a story is built from an act of violence that occurs outside of or prior to the film’s telling. In Blue Ruin, Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) sets out to achieve murderous revenge on those responsible for the death of his parents. Blair plays Dwight as constantly wide-eyed, petrified, and fidgety. The film exhibits a sparsity of dialogue, but a significant amount of Dwight’s spoken lines are used to color his confusion and unpreparedness. Dwight seeks violence as a response only because it is expected of him, because it is the only response that he has been lead to believe makes sense as a response to a previous violence. In Green Room, the violent showdown is set into place when the visiting band members stumble upon a body left by a violent overreaction. From there, both the endangered heroes and the loosely commanded white supremacists are forced by expectation into violence. In both films, violence exists as a constant, a foundation, and the stories being told are just continuation of a long network of violent reactions to a former violent act.
Early in Green Room, before the survival stakes are established, Tad (David W. Thompson) introduces the band as being from Washington D.C. and Sam (Alia Shawkat) is quick to correct that they are actually from Northern Virginia. When Tad later sends the band to a backwoods gig just outside of Portland, Oregon inside of a dingy bar roughly constructed of tin and wood decorated with a mixed bag of hate symbols, Saulnier is folding a map of America, bringing the opposing coasts together as an envelope containing America’s own violent emotions, history, and cultural artifacts. Every scene seems to passively observe a symbol of hate or violence in the background – Schutzstaffels, Swastikas, and the Confederate flag adorn all of the club’s walls. When the band is forced to inflict terminal violence upon their attackers in order to survive, the camera catches tattoos of diamonds and knives shaped like crosses, implicating our country’s history of excess materialism and misappropriated religion. Muffled by the thin walls of the club, the Nazi punk score of the second act sounds more vicious and visceral. And at least twice – when Sam observes an absence of blood and inquires as to whether the victim of the murder is actually dead and when Reece (Joe Cole) incorrectly estimates that the pistol held against them contains six “bullets” – we realize that these victims’ understanding of their situation, both the violence that has already occurred and the violence set to unfold, is informed hopelessly by television and film.
This is why every subsequent attack and injury on a character feels so determinedly traumatic, leaving the characters and the audience in a state of shock. Both groups, the fictional occupants of the story and its real life viewers, are conditioned to think of violence in cinematic terms. Saulnier is merciless in his refusal to grant that safe space. It is not just that the writer/director unleashes violence, it is that he looks directly at its damage in terms that are biologically and psychologically non-fictional. Cinematographer Sean Porter’s camera holds for extra beats on flesh ruined by shotgun blasts, on a stomach unzipped by a box cutter, on the loose skin of a throat opened by a Rottweiler’s bite. Moreover, the movie measures the damage on the face and spirit of those inflicting the violence. We quickly see the ruin of the punk rock bravado in each of the band members when they are forced to respond violently. Between the episodic exchanges of violence, the characters revisit an earlier question regarding their “desert island bands.” They confess affection for more commercial acts like Madonna, Prince, and Simon & Garfunkel, desperately dreaming of an escape from the reality of violence into the artifice of the plasticized culture that they have superficially denied with their art.
On the faces of the men sent to kill them, we see the trauma of being expected to kill, the remorse and existential despair of being someone who does kill. Bad guys and good guys alike look upon the bodies of their friends and their victims, their expressions measuring their psychological damage. In Green Room, having to kill, even in necessity, is not a heroic task but a spiritual and mental injury. The bad guys are not driven by a desire to kill, but rather they are influenced by poison ideas and the embedded historically and culturally informed expectation that these ideas require violence for survival. No one wants to kill, and so, no one perceives their own killing as a victory. Because of this, none of the violence in the film is clean and entertaining.
In his unexpected turn as Darcy Banker, owner of the club and leader of the Neo-Nazi-style hate group, Patrick Stewart has collected a wave of critical praise. But for all of his cold, hateful detachment, Banker proves to be surprisingly uninvolved with the movie’s violent events. He stays relatively hands off, representing the manipulative voice of a nation’s living hateful history and the modern world’s inability to divorce itself from its evil chapters (it’s worth noting that the tenets of Nazism and the ugliest aspects of the American Confederacy have extended to and are thriving here in the Pacific Northwest.) But the film does present one relatively efficient killer.
As Amber, Imogen Poots is the understated strength of the film and the polished center of its symbolic significance. We meet Amber first in the attending concert crowd with the eventual victim of the instigating murder. When we later see her physically restrained backstage over the body of her friend, we note the tears in her eyes but also note the absence of panic, the nervous acceptance of her dire situation. Eventually, Amber loudly protests against the expressed idea that she belongs to the same white supremacy culture as her assailants. That is not who she is. It is also not why she proves the most suited for survival. There’s a sense that Amber, more than anyone else in the film, has witnessed the extent of the web of violence that holds her reality, that she expects to receive and deliver violence the way others expect hunger and thirst.
Amber’s understanding and expectation of violence is sewn so intrinsically into her existence that when Pat uses violent terms to offer up an anecdote about a paintball match against efficient opponents of military experience, Amber forces him to finish the story. As Pat explains the conclusion of the match, again in violent terms not suited for paintball, Amber leans her head back and her expression indicates first a sort of serenity, and then gives subtle indications of sexual arousal. Amber’s identity is a construct of hopelessness, almost as a sort of biology. She thinks only in the present tense, detached from the past and without expectation of any future. She sees nothing but the need to defend herself on a moment-by-moment basis, both within the narrative boundaries of the film and presumably, beyond in the economic despair that births violent subcultures in these detached socio-geographic regions. In the downward spiral of America’s self-supporting addiction to violence, Amber lives in the epicenter. She represents the logical conclusion of our country’s film-informed obsession with killing as a solution of survival, justice, and protection.
In this sense, Saulnier is both using the violence of his films to tear apart the dishonest and insincere relationship between American film and violence and applying violence as a stethoscope on the pulse of a hyper-violent modern American culture. He is dismembering the cowboy/outlaw/good-guy-with-a-gun fantasies that permeate our movies and now, as either an extension of or influence to our film culture, poison our everyday lives. With presidential hopefuls openly encouraging violence against civil protesters and thousands of citizens signing a petition for the right to carry concealed weapons at this summer’s Republican National Convention, it is quite clear that ours is a culture of violent fantasy, one that thinks of violence as a badge of identity without thinking of its crude, inhumane ugliness. In a moment in which too many American people think that the answer to the gun epidemic is to give guns to better people, Saulnier’s films serve as a much needed reminder that even defensive violence unleashed by a good person is an ugly thing, an advancement of symptoms into a new limb of our societal body.
Green Room ends on two diametrically opposed exchanges. (Spoilers ahead) The first sees an attack dog walk past his former targets and rest quietly against his dead owner. The second sees Pat announce that he has finally thought of his desert island band. One might presume that Pat intends to name his own band as a healthy expression of grief for his dead friends. “Tell someone who gives a shit,” Amber replies before he can finish. So, in quick succession, an instinctive beast bred for the purpose of war and conditioned to kill unconsciously unlearns violence in exchange for compassion, while a young woman who has accepted violence as an inevitability finds herself incapable of doing the same.