The Taste of Death: Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room”

Even a slaughterhouse has its rules. But is that enough?

Green Room, the latest offering from Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier, is, in a few words, a steel-cage-shotgun-duel meets all-blades-wrestling-match between four tour-jaded punk-rockers and a small army of boots-and-braces neo-Nazi types from juuuuuuust a bit outside of Portland. That’s a lot of hyphens, but this is not a mash-up film, and this movie has a lot of genre elements, but it’s hard to say which genre it belongs to. Nonetheless, it is very coherent and very resistant to self-contradiction. Even a slaughterhouse has its rules, I suppose.

And the rules are good ones, too. The genre rules—the rules from without—come from siege thrillers like Cujo, Assault on Precinct 13, and Panic Room (as well as survival films like Deliverance), all of which depend on a minimum of space, a maximum of limitations, and a minimum of qualms.

The self-imposed limitations—the rules from within—are largely realist in nature. This is a director who, despite his penchant for horror, appears to have a real aversion to the unbelievable. And they ensure that, whatever happens, no one will die without the audience being prepared for that eventuality. Like Chekhov’s shotgun, the knives on offer here all leave a calling card before they make their mark.

The film opens with a van in a cornfield. All riders are sleeping peacefully. As they awake, they seek an answer to the riddle at hand: namely, what are they doing here? The driver says he fell asleep. The beer cans in evidence seem to complicate that answer, but no one seems to care. In the meantime, they need gas.

They are a punk band, The Ain’t Rights, and they revel in the death of punk as much as they do in the lifestyle of a band on the road. They siphon gas. They play shows at diners. And when a “true” Portlandia punker (his authenticity verified by the taste on evidence in his vinyl collection) interviews them about what punk means today, they take that question seriously. They swear fealty to their genre with their brooding, and when he asks for their desert island discs, all but one (Anton Yelchin’s Pat, abstaining) provide the names of hallowed acts. For such an anarchic group, they are very short on heresies.

But from the moment The Ain’t Rights arrive at their next venue, the scene is very wrong. For one, the band is listed as “The Aren’t Rights,” and for two, the liaison for the band, the “true” punk, is as skeezy as a sideways skunk. The Ain’t Rights pick up on all of this shade, and, in true punk fashion, unhesitatingly collaborate on a big fuck-you performance of The Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off!”

The song provokes the response that the band seems to crave: sneers and broken bottles, primarily. But also passion. And with the wire pulled taut, the group’s next song hums to life so sublimely that we don’t even hear it. Instead, we see boots in slow motion, heads in slow motion, a crash in slow motion—all set against a backdrop of ambient noise. It feels like watching ballet.

That beauty is shocking—as is the very inconvenient bit of in-house murder that the band witnesses in the eponymous green room after the show. As is their ensuing bondage at the hands of Patrick Stewart.

So here we are, thirty minutes in, with four indie actors playing an over-it bunch of punks all stuck in a room with Imogen Poots (as a white power-y co-witness), waiting for Stewart’s Darcy Banker to make the next move.

While he mulls over what to do with his hostages, and while the terms of this engagement are rigorously outlined, we learn a few other things:

1. Not one of the band members had been truthful about their all-time favorite record,

2. a white power conspiracy is afoot in this compound, and

3. the deceptions don’t end there: the space is more drug bunker than neo-Nazi punk venue.

With that, the wheels are in motion. The kids have the wisdom that the will to survive engenders, whereas the neo-Nazis have a very large but very finite—and indeed very quantifiable—number of dogs, people, blades, and guns. With the terms set, the fight is on. And with that much said, most readers can probably guess whether or not this is the kind of movie that they will want to see.

When it comes to the ideas, there the connective tissue is far weaker than whatever’s left in Yelchin’s forearm.

Which brings us to the question of entertainment. Green Room is, without a doubt, a good horror movie. It is also a good genre movie, and a good movie, full stop. But it is also a movie that uses ideas as well as weapons to make its impact. As to the weapons, there I find no fault. I can think of few more terrifying or affecting tools of horror than the unseen blades that hack away at the lead singer’s arm as he strives to bring a critical gun back inside the green room. But when it comes to the ideas, there the connective tissue is far weaker than whatever’s left in Yelchin’s forearm.

Saulnier’s on to something interesting with his examination of authenticity. Punks and right-wing groups both made hay in the ’80s and, until recently, appeared to be on the wane. And both groups rely in a similar way on a cult of aesthetics. Boots and braces, in fact, is more than just a cute phrase for this movie; it’s also a style that occupies an important aesthetic slice in the Venn diagram shared by the punks and the neo-Nazis. But as with any group identity, the more you scratch, the more you see, and no identity can stand for long. We human beings are all too much ourselves.

That’s the true horror of well-made, sincerely intended horror movies now. They have to show us characters that we can believe in as actual human beings, and then they have to butcher them believably, all while staying true to the genre’s traditions. I suppose in one way of thinking, this is a positive development for the genre: no longer are we watching cartoon characters as they perish cartoonishly; now we are watching real-seeming characters dying real-seeming deaths. That’s certainly something, but I’m not sure that I’d call it fun.

photo by Patrick Scott Green, Courtesy of A24

Looking back on the art-house legacy of Virgin Spring, the mainstream legacy of Halloween, and the postmodern legacy of Scream, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the fun of the horror genre lies in the rules. You die if you’re too sexy. You die if you open that door. And you definitely die if you leave the house. You die for arbitrary—but obvious—reasons because, well, because that’s why you’re there. You’re there to die. That’s life in the horror genre.

But once you abandon those genre conventions and rely instead on reality for the horror effect, you have to either abandon that notion of rules or else double down on it. You have to say either, “these people died because life is ephemeral and death is arbitrary” (not a fun approach; cf. Virgin Spring) or “these people died because they deserved to, suckas!” (a pretty fun, if not unproblematic, approach; cf. pretty much everything else in the horror genre).

And Green Room, for all its accomplishments, does neither. Instead, it kills off its deeply sympathetic—if deeply apathetic—characters without reference to their probity, vitality, or anything at all. The people who die seem to die just because. And at film’s end, Imogen Poots refuses to so much as hear Yelchin’s desert island disc selection once he’s finally willing to reveal it. That’s both fitting and sad. The movie took on a kind of moral outlook by actively damning the poses of anarchy and irony, but then it proceeds to eschew any kind of moral burden by simply saying “meh.”

This is more than just a moral problem, because if we aren’t supposed to care why anyone survives, why should we care how anyone dies? The injuries and the deaths are impactful (very), but no more than that. In this new vision of the horror genre, the characters may be better developed and the rules may be more organic, but people still die for no good reason. It’s actually even worse than that. “Because she went outside” may not be a good reason for someone to be hacked to death by a masked assailant, but at least it’s a reason. “Because nothing matters” is just depressing. FL

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