“No future” is one of punk’s most distinctive calling cards.
Originally borrowed from the lyrics of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” the slogan captures the nihilistic ideologies that fueled this cultural movement and its offshoots across other artistic media. For the punks, there’s not much hope in a capitalistic hellscape—but there is some solace in the revelry of rebellion. There is merit in rejecting the grander meaning behind the mainstream’s bread and circuses.
Beyond Green Room’s main characters—the members of independent punk band The Ain’t Rights—the anarchic glee adorning its survival horror chassis also unmistakably bears the punk movement’s influence. In an early scene, the band covers Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F**k Off” to instigate the crowd of backwoods Portland skinheads in front of them. Bassist and focal character Pat (Anton Yelchin) notes beforehand that it might be “a dumb idea” to pull such a stunt, and it’s hard to disagree with him. But it’s also a quintessentially punk move to aggressively tell off a hoard of white supremacists at a club in the middle of nowhere. The action exudes a sneering disregard for violent consequences.
Stylistically and thematically, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature is punk nihilism at its peak. It’s a bleak, bitter movie, an ice-cold kiss-off to cinematic customs and audience expectations. It’s also quite literally a bloody mess. The carnage in Green Room aptly embodies punk’s embrace of chaos over clarity. Bodily mutilation is foregrounded, and the film disposes of its characters as swiftly as the popular music industry commodifies “originality.”
Death snatches up characters briskly, providing only the bare minimum screen time required to earn audience empathy. It’s a testament to the strength of Saulnier’s writing that we feel for most of the quickly dispatched. There’s a dark efficiency to the manner in which this movie hacks up both its hostage-held punks and antagonistic neo-Nazis. Just when a character seems safe, they immediately lose their throat to a Rottweiler’s maw, or their face to a shotgun blast. The rapid-fire development of the plot begets plenty of these condensed character arcs, each its own memento mori served with a safety pinned shrug.
Pat defends The Ain’t Rights’ decision to forgo social media as a promotional tool during an interview with a college radio station near the film’s beginning. He disparages folks that can’t simply be present and experience the music—there one instant, gone the next. The best way to live, according to Pat, is to put down your smart phone and headbang. Wage the war onstage and not in the comments section, he might say.
Other films have condemned living life through technology, but the real harm social media poses is offering a megaphone for hate speech, especially from already powerful figures. Regardless, Pat’s viewpoint implies that only through living in the “now” of a performance, and accumulating similarly orgasmic catharses, can one maintain a sense of purpose. This film’s eventual bloodbath counters that even authenticity—the endlessly sought-after currency of punk rockers—has an expiration date.
Green Room illustrates this in one extended nihilist joke. Its setup: the college radio jockey asks the members of The Ain’t Rights to choose their “desert island band.” Pat can’t come up with an answer. The question recurs throughout the rest of the movie. As Pat’s friends and band mates run for or lose their lives in the skinhead-infested club, most of them reject their earlier punk choices and pick poppier groups. He remains stumped.
After bullets, blades and bites have destroyed everyone except Amber (Imogen Poots) and Pat, the raspy bassist finally thinks of his desert island band. When he tries to tell her, she curtly responds, “Tell someone who gives a sh*t.” Pat’s search for an answer acted as an informational MacGuffin up until this point, and here the film viciously discards it, smashing to black once Amber delivers the punchline.
If Green Room cares about the people it presents us with, it also rather unsubtly reminds us how easily those we care about can be ripped from the earth. Saulnier shows such savage lack of restraint in framing ruined viscera that this fiction verges aesthetically on a glitzed up snuff film. The deeper implications of how the director presents this violence are sobering, and offer a qualifier for the film’s negative outlook.
Yes, Green Room’s resignation to in-your-face violence feels like a punkish balking at the audience, a “tell someone who gives a shit” directed at anyone appalled by its fountains of gore. But if there’s any ulterior purpose to the film’s violent ugliness, it’s to provoke that knee jerk. Sure, I laughed at Amber’s final line—how could I not? It’s one of the most succinct dismissals around. But that doesn’t make the scenes where she and Pat adorn Sharpie war paint and slice/shoot their way out of the compound any less disturbing.
Saulnier’s film arrives in a frightening cultural moment in which questions of authenticity and ethos carry devastating political weight. This is an era witnessing the rising threat of a new American fascism: a hyper-capitalist, authoritarian bigotry egregiously chalked up as merely “anti-establishment.” In the face of that danger, a movie like Green Room presents us with a vexing quandary. Must we make monsters of ourselves in order to escape the monsters at our doorstep? The film’s ending suggests true punk confrontation requires getting a little blood on our hands. Whether or not we should interpret that literally is left unclear.
Green Room is set in the Pacific Northwest, but as neo-Nazi leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart) emphasizes to his followers, “This is a movement, not a party.” Hateful ideologies do not exist on the geographical or political fringe. They are frighteningly pervasive in the world and its history, often burning within the mainstream. And Saulnier, putting nuance behind his nihilism, offers a terrifying depiction of where we are headed by showing us where we already are.