I thought of two things as I watched The Green Room unspool in a nearly empty theater in Golden this weekend. (By the way, thank you, Regal, for providing a few of your screens in Denver for smaller movies – you do a fuck lot better than the assholes at Landmark in providing a comfortable place to watch them, and without all the pretentious pomp, circumstance and Stella Artois commercials.)
The first thing I thought of was a scene in the truly wonderful old TV series Freaks and Geeks when a kid searching for his identity decides to give punk rock a test drive. He eggs his hair into spikes, jabs a few safety pins in his skin and then declares, “I’m a punker.” It’s a perfect scene because anyone who declares himself “a punker” is most certainly not.
The second is the great David Berman who said, “Punk rock died when the first kid said, ‘Punk’s not dead.’”
Like the two thoughts above, The Green Room reminded me that punk is like mildew in a teenager’s closet. Keep it in the dark and it flourishes. Expose it to the light of self-awareness and it withers. It doesn’t matter whose light: that of middle-aged men trying to recapture their youths by burdening their memories with too much importance, or kids wishing they were part of something they didn’t live through.
The Green Room is about an old-school punk rock band, four people in their early twenties playing three chords, shouting “Fuck you,” and trying to fight a war that ended before they were born. Like, teenagers wearing Misfits and Minor Threat patches, these kids’ self-consciousness couldn’t be any less punk rock. They’re just soul-searching losers. Likeable losers, sure, but what does that get you? Usually, employee of the month at a reptile shop or sneaker store in the outlet mall.
It also makes these fuck-ups the perfect protagonists for the bloodshed and terror of The Green Room. The band, The Ain’t Rights, is struggling through a failed tour, siphoning gas to get to a town where their gig is canceled, playing the lunch show in a Mexican restaurant and then taking a sketchy gig in the middle of Buttfuck, Oregon just to get gas money to go home.
The sketchy gig is at a remote bunker, home base for White Power skinheads who also cling to the tired punk genre, but for different reasons. The Ain’t Rights see the aryan graffiti and the swastikas, but they play anyway because they need the money and because they don’t care enough not to.
The problems start after the show when they stumble in to a back room and see a woman stabbed in the head, and a whole lot of skinheads who’d rather the band hadn’t. The band is locked into the room while the skinheads consult with their leader (Patrick Stewart) about what to do next.
Suddenly, these aimless, lost punks have a purpose: to survive some really fucking scary, angry monsters. There are flesh-eating dogs, more knives than at a Fresno flea market, swords, shotguns, pistols and weapons fashioned from whatever is available as Stewart sends wave after wave of jackbooted Oi! boys at the Ain’t Rights.
The Green Room is like Olde Town Arvada’s Annual Chili Cookoff: very few survive, although the movie has considerably less pants-shitting. Director/writer Jeremy Saulnier (who also directed the very good genre flick Blue Ruin) keeps the tension cranked way past the typical jump-scare horror movie, sometimes beyond entertainment and into the area where it knots the stomach.
The violence is like seeing your mom drunk: fucking gross. It’s stuff I’d only ever heard about, and that’s when the Harelip told us about her honeymoon: Hacked arms, slit bellies, dog-eaten faces, shotgunned heads, duct tape keeping limbs from falling off. It’s gory, for sure, but in a more visceral way than the typical horror movie where the characters and scenario are very separated from reality.
What Saulnier does best is be economical. The austerity of his storytelling elevates his genre flicks above the rest. He trusts his characters and audiences enough to leave backstory out of the exposition. People on screen don’t have to explain their relationships to each other, or their emotions. You can see al that in their actions. Saulnier also does a damn good job at something most horror movies just plain suck at: having his protagonists behave logically. Their actions make sense, are what the rest of us might do. And that goes a fuck of a long way toward making us care what happens to them.
Yet, for the very good protagonists, the baddies are somewhat obvious. Granted, skinheads are usually morons. But the ones here are a shade too dumb to be believable. In reality, they would have killed the punks about 30 minutes into the movie. They wouldn’t have let them keep getting the best of them. And because the bad guys are so dumb, it lent to a feeling of repetition toward the end. I didn’t know how the movie would end, but I felt as though there was maybe one too many confrontations before it get there. To its credit, however, The Green Room closes on the most punk rock sentiment in the movie. That last line, spoken not by the band, fingers the only real punk in the movie.
Still, if facing death is what it takes to make a bunch of dumb kids finally take off their denim jackets with G.B.H. on the back, or recognize that the Misfits are a fuck lot better in theory than they are in reality, then I'm for death. I don't know if punk's dead, but the "punkers" mostly are. Four Fingers for The Green Room.