The recent trailer for the now delayed Dune reminded us that “Fear is the mind-killer.” This mantra is particularly appropriate for the tumultuous year of 2020, as well as the regular Halloween season. As we enter haunted corn mazes to be scared by costumed spooks or social distance at home and watch scary movies, we experience the sensation of being in danger and emotionally prepare ourselves for real emergencies. One such film that both trains the audience in facing fear and thematically addresses panic is the 2015 horror-thriller Green Room.
Green Room, written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is grungy, terrifying, and brutal. In a word, unpleasant. And yet, it’s one of my favorite horror films.
Green Room follows a down-and-out punk rock band on tour in Oregon as they siphon gas to get from one humiliatingly third-rate venue to the next. Their failure as a band is partly due to their lack of any online presence. The croaky-voiced bassist, Pat (Anton Yelchin), vaguely explains that living off-the-grid is part of their commitment to the energy and temporal nature of live performances, which are happening one moment and gone the next. Unfortunately, this dedication puts them in the tight spot of choosing between ending the tour and heading across the country with just enough money for one tank of gas, or taking a $350 gig at a rural skinhead bar.
After performing for an aggressive crowd of neo-Nazi punks, the band witnesses the aftermath of a murder in the backstage green room and gets detained inside by armed bar employees. Despite the insistence of the bar owner Darcy, (Patrick Stewart), that they won’t be harmed and “This will all be over soon, gentlemen,” it quickly becomes apparent these neo-Nazis are maneuvering themselves into a position of power so that they can kill the witnesses in the cleanest way possible.
The assault begins with knives and machetes but soon escalates to attack dogs and guns. The band panics, makes costly mistakes, and starts getting brutally murdered. They reject the militant advice of Amber (Imogen Poots), a brooding former neo-Nazi stuck in the room with them, are coaxed into giving up their only weapon to the enemy, and even become desperate and dazed enough to split up while looking for a way out of the complex.
These hasty decisions are made in the thickets of hysteria, terror, and panic by people who have never experienced such dire situations. They face an organized, ideologically motivated, armed, militant threat, and feel like they’re in a nightmare, instead of rationally understanding that they’ve entered a war. Pat and his band members are civilians, besieged by skinheads, the soldiers of the punk-rock scene.
Among other things, war is known for turning boys into men and kids into killers. In one night, Pat changes his identity from quiet victim to deadly executioner and his appearance from punk rocker to face-painted, gun-toting skinhead. As he loses his innocence in the carnage, he takes on the look of his enemies and ends the film by committing the very crime that the neo-Nazis were going to frame him and his bandmates for.
When the sun rises on the bloodshed of the night, the remaining skinheads are all completely caught off-guard by Pat and Amber’s reappearance. The ruthless murderers become stunned captives, exposed by daylight. Pat sounds almost fascinated by the change, saying to Darcy, “It’s funny. You were so scary at night.” While one of the bar employees repents and vows to turn himself into the police, Darcy remains in complete denial, choosing to try and walk away as though nothing has happened, instead of accepting his fate or fighting it. In spirit, Darcy refuses to believe that the sun has risen on his dark deeds to his dying breath. Even the Nazi’s attack dog suppresses the truth by returning to nuzzle his owner even after the man is dead.
And yet, many of the other characters do change. Each of them enters the story committed to a different faction. For the skinheads, it’s their white supremacy movement. For the band members, it’s inspirations like the Misfits, Black Sabbath, or the Cro-Mags. And yet, by the end of the bloodbath, some band members have changed their favorites to the non-punk choices of Prince and Simon and Garfunkel, while some skinheads have defected from the neo-Nazi movement.
Pat remains undecided for most of the film. When a podcaster interviews the band and asks what their desert island bands are, Pat seems distraught by the idea of only listening to one band for the rest of his life and can’t decide. Later, just before the band risks their lives to escape the green room, they repeat the question and Pat still won’t commit. It’s not until just after Pat has killed for the first time and the fight is over that he has an answer, but by then no one cares. Jeremy Saulnier calls this a thesis moment, arguing that “when you shake people down to their core, who your favorite band is doesn’t define you.”
Although this isn’t a particularly insightful thesis, especially compared to other recent horror films like The Witch, Green Room makes up for thematic simplicity with sheer attitude. As soon as Pat says he knows his desert island pick, Amber replies, “tell someone who gives a s**t” and the film hard-cuts to credits with a classic rock song by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s as if the film itself doesn’t care what you think of it. Just like the off-the-grid punk concerts Pat describes early on, Green Room is experienced in all it’s violent energy for one moment and gone the next, with little care for being analyzed online afterward. Unlike a concert, however, people can keep returning to Green Room to take in its extreme intensity, sardonic humor, and sharp style for years to come. I, for one, hope that they do.