To suggest that Green Room, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to his 2013 indie breakout hit, Blue Ruin, could take place anywhere at any time attests to its stunning execution. Where the film’s intensity is truly heightened, though, is in the cultural climate in which the blood and bullets fly: an America that continues to define its borders through race; an America paralysed by two-party politics; an America that arms itself to its snarling teeth.
Nominally a “punks vs. skinheads” showdown, Green Room introduces its punk protagonists, the Ain’t Rights, as a band whose name could describe their casual left-wing leanings just as much as it could their ill-advised decision to play the final show of their failed west coast tour at a backwoods neo-Nazi club. Despite the band’s choice to open with a cover of Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” Saulnier throws a middle finger to anyone considering running these kids through a purity test: paying for gas to get home is their bottom line, so they’ll gladly take the dirty money. By the time the band finishes their set, to a mixed reaction of cheers and jeers, dread still abounds. Will everyone get home safe? Is the “punk” and “skin” billing all for show? Green Room answers “No”—though it doesn’t arrive at that answer easily.
A fateful encounter with a dead body in the titular backstage room is the first event to tip the band’s journey over into brutality. Pivotal not only for the lives of his characters but the allegory of his narrative, Saulnier drops their witnessing of a crime scene into Green Room to draw a line between where pretend stops and reality begins. The neo-Nazis, we learn, have their own way of dealing with incrimination. With the Ain’t Rights stranded on this remote patch of land, they resolve to keep local authorities at bay long enough to kill off the band, lest they leave to tell the tale and bring down their place of business. Saulnier raises the stakes with guns, gore and nerve-shearing stand-offs, pitting these tragically misguided youths against one another in classic B-movie fashion.
Tongue-in-cheek, Green Room’s distributor, A24, teases the film’s trailer on their Facebook page with this analogy: “Imagine the scariest guys at a Trump rally. Now imagine Patrick Stewart as their nefarious leader.” Parallels between Stewart’s Darcy Banker, the neo-Nazi gang leader and club owner, and Donald Trump are constant. Both men’s last names are synonymous with wealth and power, and both exploit their loyal followings with a combination of mob mentality and hollow promises of national supremacy. These mirror images alone add weight and immediacy to the sharp political divides that the film markets to audiences so heavily.
In an offbeat moment of Green Room that Saulnier paints with flat black humor, Banker sends his skinhead patrons home from a show early but guarantees free drinks when they return. The offer gets applause from the crowd, but Banker calms it down: “The racial advocacy workshop is on Wednesday. Remember, it’s not a party; it’s a movement.” A close-up hangs on red party cups dropped to the ground and crushed underneath skins’ boots. Bigotry’s his business, and business is good.
“It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,” Trump told Fortune in 2000. Trump is in fact far from the only one to peddle books, clothes and other patriotic swag during an election year. What separates his enterprise from other politics-for-profit ventures, though, is the white nostalgia he’s packaged. His hot-selling “Make America Great Again” hats have, for better or worse, become iconic, and they provide a shorthand for what Trump considers the “good old days,” in which protestors would be “carried out on a stretcher” if they dared challenge a position at a rally with which they disagreed. Sucker-punch a black protestor in the face, scream “light the motherfucker on fire!” to another, shout “Sieg heil!” at one more—no matter, Trumpian leadership absolves each action with the refrain that those opposed are just too politically correct.
This rising temperature of demagoguery is what brings Green Room to its boiling point. Modern race-baiting can be equal parts crass and coy, and it’s noteworthy that skins in the film cover their club wall-to-wall with a patchwork of Confederate, SS and KKK flags and symbols, rather than one that signifies allegiance to any particular “cause.” The film’s visual language illustrates a contemporary America whose identity is both fragmented and stitched together by its racist past.
Tempting is the urge to further the Trump/Banker comparison by citing Trump’s alleged reading of Adolf Hitler’s speeches and his ambivalence toward KKK members’ endorsement of his campaign. Saulnier’s story is too smart, however, to allow such an easy game of connect-the-dots. Green Room goes to great lengths to be strategically ambiguous about the ideology of the skinheads who march to the beat of Banker’s drum. Not for nothing is the Neo-Nazi club also a front for Banker’s lucrative drug ring, and it’s he and his gang’s territorial protection over it that, underneath all the “White Power” posturing, further escalates the punks-on-skins violence. You won’t catch anyone here reciting Mein Kampf or the “14 Words” of the American Nazi Party before assailing their victims.
It’s precisely this sidestepping of the dogmatic tenants of race hatred ideology that make Green Room’s violence feel so dangerous, so now. There aren’t enough ethnic slurs uttered throughout the film to count with a full hand; the geography of its blood-spattered battle speaks far greater volumes about the cause of each grisly death.
Saulnier’s direction, a masterclass in controlled chaos, situates the action on the outskirts of society, where American myths of self-governance and vigilante justice struggle for dominance over the presence of a state-run police force—“pigs,” as Banker so fondly refers to them. In this way, Green Room builds on the foundations Saulnier laid out in Blue Ruin, a slower-paced but potent thriller that explores how feuding families evade the laws of the land to obtain weaponry and serve up their own brand of deadly vengeance.
After all, location, location, location is where Green Room’s chaos is controlled. Fortified in the forests of Oregon, the skins embed their operation in an otherwise largely liberal state. But when Banker asks Pat to kindly give his gun back (in that wry tone only Stewart could deliver), out of fear that it could fall into the wrong hands while “unregistered,” we are reminded of the ease with which US citizens with the sketchiest of backgrounds can acquire firearms and remain invisible to our legal system across the map. For a state mocked for its tree-hugging types, the trees in Green Room’s Oregon stand more as a safe haven for private, unregulated militias than for hippie utopia. (Maybe Banker picked up a thing or two from Trump on the importance of real estate).
If Saulnier spends the first half of Green Room picking at the wounds inflicted upon our national body, he spends the second half considering ways in which to heal them, painting members of the skins gang in shades of gray. Some of Banker’s goons get high on their own supply of heroin to numb the emotional pain that being a disposable cog in his wheel certainly causes. Others, like Amber, the deeply divided young skinhead who also witnesses the green-room murder, become disillusioned and break from group-think after losing a friend to the hive.
The manic spontaneity of the film’s action reveals a dark irony: that ideology’s unintended consequence—its ability to trap everyday people in a game of dog-eat-dog—is a much clearer and more present threat than its intended ones. The film’s “green room” isn’t just a bloodsport arena for bands on opposing “teams,” but a place where each side’s pursuit of that ultimate green—money—imprisons them in a paradox of unity and division. In the end, their clashing anarchy signs and swastikas both fall under the red, white, blue and green flag of Saulnier’s America.
The last thing you’d expect from a film “about punk” is for punk itself to be portrayed as a crushing machine, rather than the proverbial rage against it. Bravely and boldly, Saulnier trusts in the horror inherent in that vision. Whether the Neo-Nazi, KKK, or Confederate “schools of thought” are directly responsible for the movie’s murders isn’t made explicit (though the question continually intrigues), but what is explicit is how brute force can erupt in an atmosphere where bigotry is normalized.
“This is a nightmare,” Pat utters in disbelief as he stares into Banker’s black eyes at the film’s conclusion. In Saulnier’s America, where the seeds of “us vs. them” grow into trees of a poisonous sort, the line is an understatement. Long after the discourse of the day has faded, Green Room will maintain its vice-like grip. If there’s a film from the last decade that gives us a desperately needed warning about dangerous charlatans, this is it.