Green Room (2016) by Jeremy Saulnier
Review by Nathan Smith
"Tell it to someone who gives a shit.”
Is it an accident that these are the last words spoken in Jeremy Saulnier’s new thriller Green Room? I'd imagine it’s not, but I don’t know if Saulnier realizes how perfectly he summed up the failures of his own work. Green Room is a movie that does not give a shit, not about what you think of it, but about people, about consequence, about humanity. There’s no way for me to reckon with Green Room that does not involve the intense jerking of my knee; I can’t recall the last time I was this turned off by a film’s moral sensibility. It’s that kid in your middle school whose parents let him watch Saw 3, after which he “accidentally” brought a pocketknife to school. It’s torture porn for people too embarrassed to like Eli Roth; they’d never let Eli Roth into Cannes, after all. I know good writers save their adjectives, but I’m having a difficult time not paintballing Green Room with words like “sadistic” and “cruel.” In my eyes, it’s not a problematic movie as much as it is a Problem.
Its premise has enough potential: A desperate, perpetually touring punk band, the Ain’t Rights, take a sketchy gig at a road house run by racist, redlace-wearing assholes. After the band witnesses a murder, the skinheads and their leader, played with force and menace by Patrick Stewart, come out to play, subjecting our protagonists to all manner of inhumanity by way of blade, boxcutter, and bulldog. It’s like one of those WWE street fights where they tease us with chainsaws and baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire, except unlike the world of wrestling, this violence is supposed to be Real, a point Saulnier reinforces by taking every opportunity to cut back to someone’s gaping wound or nearly-severed limb.
It’s been said that in his last two features, Green Room and Blue Ruin, Saulnier wants to explore how “regular people” respond to violent situations. There was nothing appetizing about watching some dumbass dig an arrow out of his leg in Blue Ruin, and there’s still nothing appetizing about the sloppy violence in Green Room. It’s impressive on a technical level, but prosthetics and makeup only take a viewer so far. Saulnier’s obsession with injury begins to border on pornography. Man cannot live on shock alone.
Like Blue Ruin, Green Room expresses a distaste for exposition and context, which makes it all the more difficult to follow its protagonists through the meat grinder. We know almost nothing about the Ain’t Rights beyond the fact that they’re a traveling band, they siphon gas to get by, and they enjoy the music of fairly well known punk bands. I go to the movies more for images and form than I do characters or stories, but I need a reason to keep watching when your aesthetic content is this unsettling.
I can sympathize with a stranger who has had their hand almost cut off, but when I don’t know anything about them other than their favorite bands, I struggle to empathize. Compare it with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Cannibal Corpse of horror movies. Hooper is almost vegan with his camera, eschewing mutilation in favor of imagination. But Saulnier is like Sweeney Todd: he traffics only in gashes, slashes, and gore, and nothing else seems capable of holding his attention. It’s made even worse by the unnecessary addition of a few imperceptible and inarticulate plotlines about minor characters that want to give up the neo-Nazi life. These subplots are so confusing that it communicates a lack of commitment; Saulnier himself must be uncomfortable with his own bloodlust, so he adds a few side characters to hide the scent.
Perhaps what makes me additionally uncomfortable is that, beyond sadism, the only thing Saulnier expresses interest in is the culture of militant neo-Nazism. He has paid careful attention to the linguistic tics and iconography of white America’s worst underbelly, and his abilities as a researcher should be commended, but he seems uncomfortable with his own interests.
His depiction of punk and hardcore is frustrating; like 2014’s Whiplash didn’t actually care about jazz, Green Room never strays far from the graphic tee section of JCPenney. The most genuine piece of mise-en-scène in the movie, a Dillinger Escape Plan poster hanging in the home of a hardcore enthusiast, could very well have been an accident. In contrast, the Nazi side of this movie drapes itself in slang that probably doesn’t make sense to anyone outside of active Stormfront users. “Punk” feels like a cover; Saulnier is not secure enough in his own abilities as a filmmaker to take the bold step and make a movie just about skinheads, who he clearly finds more interesting than the band members that get the headlining spot.
Saulnier might know his stuff when it comes to skinheads, but he’s not the first person I'd want to make a serious movie about the subject. Early in the film, there’s a joke that hints at one of the band members being Jewish, but Saulnier gets too caught up in slashing and stabbing his protagonists to open up a potential ideological pressure cooker. Green Room is a tense movie, but the tension has no context with which to ground itself.
I’ve never liked Quentin Tarantino, but Green Room’s total disregard for its own ideological implications makes me respect Tarantino’s later work a little more. Within the space of historical revisionism, Tarantino uses cartoonish violence for the purposes of empowerment. I just personally don’t think he’s the right person for the job. Green Room, despite Tarantino’s glowing endorsement, could not sit more opposite to that worldview. It relishes in brutality inflicted on bystanders, not on perpetrators. By the time Patrick Stewart’s character gets his just desserts, it’s with a few easy bullets, not the boxcutters more innocent characters are dispatched with.
You could claim that Saulnier’s trying to relate his violence to our “real world,” in which villains hardly ever get their due, but I don’t buy that. In fact, I think this movie is potentially more insidious than I might have let on. In today’s sociopolitical climate, when issues of white supremacy have fiercely bubbled back up to the surface of our national discourse, it seems risky to cast racists as this unsubtle, this overt. The most dangerous racists in our society don’t thread their Doc Martens with red laces or ink themselves with Iron Eagles. They don’t deal drugs to fund The Movement, and they wouldn’t stab themselves for The Cause. If you asked if they were white supremacists, they wouldn’t respond with a resounding yes.
These racists, the ones that do the most damage to our society, dress like cops and politicians. They don’t proudly display their white supremacy on their sleeves. They talk like “normal people.” Green Room is more Breaking Bad knockoff than Indiana Jones, but its antagonists flirt with cartoon and caricature. And cartoons and caricatures can be dismissed. I don’t doubt that people like this really do exist, and I don’t mean to minimize the threat they pose, but I think Green Room needs to take more responsibility for its treatment of a complicated subject. If your movie’s going to include this many rebel flags, I at least want to see one burn.