Life isn’t easy for the Ain’t Rights, a struggling punk group on the road in the Pacific Northwest. Barely making enough money to get by (and often reduced to acts of gas siphoning just to keep their tour van rolling), they find themselves in such tight financial shape that they are willing to take any paying gig. So when a contact they barely know sends them to an extremely dodgy-looking neo-Nazi compound out in the boondocks, they should know better than to go, but they do. And since they are definitely not down with neo-Nazis in general, they should know better than to open their set with “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by the Dead Kennedys, but they do. And when they are told there’s a problem in the green room and they should just get their stuff and go, they should know better than to go back for a phone they left behind, but they do. And when they find that there’s been a murder back there, and that the neo-Nazis suddenly aren’t going to let any witnesses leave alive, all of those “could have, would have, should have” moments come back in sharp relief. Survival situations can be like that.
Green Room is a 2016 horror movie by Jeremy Saulnier, whose 2013 revenge thriller Blue Ruin was one of that year’s finest movies. This one isn’t quite as nuanced or original as Blue Ruin but it’s a tense, gripping, savage thing in which a bunch of ill-prepared and ill-equipped punk rockers (led by the late Anton Yelchin) suddenly find themselves under siege within the heart of a Nazi skinhead compound with more than a few killers in boots and bracers ready to prove themselves by gutting an outsider. Saulnier’s style of filmmaking likes to focus on the minutiae of extreme situations, and imagine the ways in which people might not act as they ought to, or as we expect them to, or how little incompetencies can throw a wrench into even the best-laid plans. Well, with Green Room, as soon as things get dicey, nothing turns out the way anybody expects.
One of the things I most enjoyed about this movie was how it focused on the skinheads themselves, led by the manipulative Darcy, an older guy played by Patrick Stewart, who runs the whole show. Darcy’s one of those white supremacists who long ago stopped wearing his swastikas on the outside in the hopes of giving his movement a broader appeal to folks feeling downtrodden and looking to belong to something, anything, that gives them a sense of identity and importance. Once they’re in, things become about wearing SS patches on your jacket and sporting white power ink…all things we never see Darcy do. There is a slick malevolence to him that simultaneously underscores just how skeevy and threadbare this entire thing is, but to those who live within it, it’s their whole world. Radical movements have a way of acting like that, and one of the ways we see it best is when Darcy decides that these punkers in the green room have lived long enough, so he calls in his shock troopers, the Red Laces. We never get an explanation of who these guys are, except for how Darcy name-drops them. But they are clearly the dudes who have graduated a few ranks from attending white power concerts to committing violence for the movement. With one comment, we get this great insight to how Darcy runs his show, and how those it runs are happy to do what he tells them, even if it’s turning into a bloodbath.
As the punkers prove unexpectedly resilient and dangerous, Darcy must resort to ever more extreme methods to kill them all off before the authorities get wise to what’s going on. Eventually, he turns to Gage, one of the bar employees who clearly enjoys his position with the neo-Nazi hierarchy because he’s smart enough to manage the business side of the bar. Gage’s neo-Nazi bona fides seem a lot less solid than some of the other goosesteppers trying to kill off the Ain’t Rights, but Darcy overlooks it because Gage has skills Darcy needs. As things spin out of control, Darcy pulls Gage aside and orders him and one other to go in and finish off our heroes. At this point, multiple waves of skinheads have tried and failed to eliminate the group, though there have been casualties on both sides. Gage isn’t cut out for this kind of violence, and Darcy knows it, so he produces a pack of red shoelaces. If Gage pulls this off, then the laces—and all the status that comes with them—are his. In that little moment, suddenly Gage has the courage he needs to at least try to do the unthinkable. For me, this is Green Room’s moment of truth because it gives us an insight on just how little—and yet, just how much—it takes to turn a bunch of misfit losers into killers.
Green Room is a pretty simple story. We never doubt for a moment that these neo-Nazis are dangerous scumbags, and we never feel bad when any of them fall to the Ain’t Rights desperate efforts to defend themselves. And when the surviving band members have a chance to turn the tables on their attackers, we get this shot of Gage himself, who is walking away from the whole scene in the hopes of turning himself into the police. No red laces are worth all this, he thinks. He’s right. They never are.