Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room hit Blu-Ray and DVD this week, and if you haven’t seen it, well, go do that. Not only is it one of my favorite movies I’ve seen this year – a grimy and visceral white-knuckle thriller with gripping performances from Patrick Stewart and the tragically late Anton Yelchin – but this analysis is going to spoil the whole thing, so heads up.
Green Room delivers breakneck shocks, surprises, and scares, and I mean real, gut-wrenching scares. Not “boo!” scares, not at all – instead, Green Room is as gruesome as it is deftly political, providing a dark glimpse into the ideological evils that lurk both in the filthy corners and public sphere of real society.
The premise of Green Room is that a punk band called the Ain’t Rights gets set up by a Seaside, Oregon radio host to play a gig at a venue deep in the woods which turns out to be a hideout for a vicious gang of Neo-Nazi skinheads. The Ain’t Rights play their set, but as they’re leaving, witness a murder in their green room. The leader of the skinheads, Darcy (Patrick Stewart), lays siege to the green room with his gang, determined to kill the band for what they’ve seen. The Ain’t Rights make several escape attempts, but are gradually picked off one by one, until only the guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and the murder victim’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots) are left.
Although the movie as a whole is full of horror and suspense, the frightening, shudder-inducing point of Green Room comes from the sharp shift in location in its final act. Having finally escaped the bloodied, claustrophobic green room, Pat and Amber escape into the woods with a surrendered henchman of Darcy’s. They allow their ally to leave and call the police before venturing off by themselves. As they wander deep into the forest, instead of freedom, they find Darcy and more of his goons arranging the band members’ bodies to suggest an accidental death from trespassing. They carefully take out the skinheads before finally confronting, and executing, Darcy after a brief shoot-out. Exhausted, grievously wounded, and alone, Pat and Amber sit down in the woods…and the movie ends.
It’s true that Darcy is dead, leaving the stability of his skinhead gang in jeopardy, and the chaos from the night the Ain’t Rights came to play has probably killed the venue. But who’s to say that Darcy’s hideout was the only one of its kind? Clubs and gangs like Darcy’s exist in all the dark and secret corners of America, from the indistinct basements of the city to isolated rural shacks, and of course deep within the thick forests of the Pacific Northwest. The film’s setting reflects that reality: Oregon, despite its public image as a haven for hipsters, is actually a state founded as a “racist utopia,” with a sickening history of discriminatory legislation and white supremacy.
Prejudice as a concept, especially violent prejudice, is invisible, and that makes it inescapable. It’s undetectable until it manifests, which lends it the horrifying potential to come from anywhere at any time, or to be stumbled upon like a gang disposing of bodies. The sudden ending in Green Room is a nod to the inconclusive nature of dealing with horrific ideology. It can be fought, and individuals can even be defeated, but there is no king of the Neo-Nazis. There is no one singular figure in any ideology that is irreplaceable, or whose vanquishing will take their whole movement with it. Darcy is dead but there’s plenty of people like him ready to take his place, like hateful hermit crabs moving into empty shells. At the end of Green Room, a wounded dog that had attacked the Ain’t Rights earlier returns, limping towards the survivors like a lingering symbol of hatred’s persistent nature. If merely wounded, hateful ideology will always come back. The forested location of Darcy’s bar is of great symbolic importance as well; whether driving to the venue or wandering through the woods, the protagonists are surrounded by trees and woods. In the final act, Pat and Amber stumble, haggard, out of the green room, but back into the same, nasty green world that brought them to Darcy in the first place.
Fears of depravity and violent locals in lonely places are a staple of the horror genre. Movies of old, like Dracula (1931), King Kong (1933), and King of the Zombies (1941), depicted intrepid explorers or travelers coming across monsters in isolated and foreign lands. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is about extraterrestrial spores brainwashing a suburban town, Village of the Damned (1960) has a sleepy English town being taken over by their own soulless, psychic children, and in 1968, Night of the Living Dead brought a mass invasion of monsters from the grave. As this genre evolved, it gradually brought the monsters closer and closer to home while also becoming increasingly political. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is popularly known as a tale of Cold War hysteria, for example. At some point, the settings of these stories came to be “empty America,” the often rural pockets of the country where effectively anything could happen. The most famous of these are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), both films about savage clans in the middle of nowhere opportunistically taking prisoner and torturing unfortunate victims. What separates these films further from their predecessors is that their monsters aren’t bestial or supernatural, they’re about evil humans. No more vampires, mutants, or spores, just despicable and diabolical people. Most of these movies’ victims were stranded travelers, but the home invasion genre grew out of this premise to reinvent these new human monsters as hunters instead of scavengers. The Purge franchise is an example of this genre finding modern success, as its monsters aren’t hermits, but neighbors, friends, and colleagues (that swarm the streets like zombies from Night of the Living Dead). The nationalistic skinheads of Green Room are more like the savage clans of the 70s in this regard, in that they’re embodying the horror that remains on the outskirts and fringes of society.
But the villains of Green Room aren’t just invisible. They’re also paradoxically, alarmingly visible, and that’s terrifying in its own right. The radio host that sent the Ain’t Rights to Darcy’s bar had only heard about the gig through his cousin Daniel, a member of the Neo-Nazis. It’s arguable that the radio host had no idea what he was sending the band to, and that he was totally ignorant of Daniel’s violent affiliations, but what if he did? What if he knowingly sent a naïve band to a Neo-Nazi bar with complete and utter indifference? We live in a time where former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, has a Twitter account with over eleven thousand followers. We also live in a time where the Republican presidential frontrunner (who David Duke has publically endorsed) is someone lambasted with accusations of hate, prejudice, and bigotry. The hyper-visibility of this ideology lends confidence to underground gangs like Darcy’s – it makes them bolder in their actions and attacks. That’s dangerous, and that’s real. That’s very, very real.
The political horror of Green Room is empowered by its rhetoric of being trapped by the evil that men do, but also by the suggestion that it can be encountered anywhere. Following the form of horror movies before it, Green Room reminds us that monstrous men are horrifying because they’re invisible, and horror has a rich history of invisible men. Darcy’s gang is invisible because they’re undetectable – it’s not like there were neon signs warning the Ain’t Rights that they would meet their doom at his bar. However, when Pat and Amber were trapped in the green room, it was at least very clear to them who their enemies were. Outside of the green room, it could be anyone, anywhere, at any time. The villains of Green Room are not wandering zombies or a clan of cannibals, they’re members of a real, violent political movement that’s much bigger than Darcy’s bar. It was one evil man and his gang that trapped Pat and Amber in a green room, but in the green world where evil and hate can come from anywhere, the factors that keep us trapped are bigger, bolder, and forged from real bloody histories.