The Punks, Skinheads, and Violence of Green Room

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“Punk ain’t no religious cult.
Punk means thinking for yourself.
You ain’t hardcore ’cause you spike your hair
When a jock still lives inside your head.
Nazi punks! Nazi punks! Nazi punks! FUCK OFF!” – Dead Kennedys

When the punk rock Aren’t Rights cover this song at a white supremacist venue, it’s the first sign that these kids are in over their heads. The song’s lyrics ironically reflect on the band and its audience, neither thinking for themselves nor as hardcore as they think. Writer/Director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room understands that DIY anarchist punk ethics are in constant danger from a systematic rule. The police state that the Dead Kennedys reference later in their song exists in multiple forms: governments, industries (musical and otherwise), and subcultures like Neo-Nazi fascists.

Aren’t Rights is made of, well, a bunch of bums. Anton Yelchin is the band’s wimpy-voiced, put-upon, Frodo-like bassist, an increasingly fed-up Alia Shawkat plays guitar, Joe Cole is a drumming martial artist, and the angular Callum Turner screams himself hoarse. They ramble through the night, siphoning gas and crashing at like-minded rockers’ homes. Youth deafens them to the thrumming approach of violent fate.

Saulnier is concerned with the roads, travel, and minute logics of lives. How do people get by, and how does that shape them? Enclosed to the point that even the opening outdoor scenes are tightly shot, faces cramped by car doors and the borders of the frame. These kids are trapped in their circumstances until we pull back to a beautiful helicopter shot of them on the open road. We realize, hey; they’re making a choice to live like this. The band members scrape by, living the touring musician’s life where the road provides. When things escalate, they don’t cling to who they are now, but their upbringing.

It all makes sense once they start their show. We know things are bad. These guys are skinheads, and this is a thriller. But the band puts on their hard facade. We squirm when they play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. Here it comes, we think. But then it moves on to the beautiful aggression of live punk music: the vibrance, adrenaline, and sublime violence of the mosh pit thrums like an ocean squall. But the music, the anger, the fighting – it’s not real for them. It’s all part of performance. They’re putting on a show. Even if some of the emotions come from a true place, their music is incompatible with the all-too-real violence they encounter later. The kind is buzzing backstage, the kind that instigates the trouble.

Green Room would be a much different movie if its violence followed its music. But the discrepancy arises immediately: these Neo-Nazis aren’t violent in angry, explosive impulses, but in a way that slides out coldly like the blade from a box cutter.

Once the other Doc Marten drops, we see the stage set up juvenile punks against militaristic, lockstep, and obedient fascism led by the imposing Patrick Stewart. The kids maintain faith in the cops (to a point) while the Nazis know how to circumvent the police. It’s a childish, rebellious faith in things just “working out” versus a mature, nihilistic evil that knows how to exploit the world’s systems. “Stand your ground” laws and the registration of firearms come up lightly as the inconvenient guidelines any good hate cell knows how to exploit.

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It’s also smart enough that both sides continue to learn and have the same realizations at the same time. Focused on the stupid practicalities, like fire hazards and ammo counts, we learn that every shot matters. People don’t get blazed down in a rain of Schwarzenegger bullets – they linger. They bleed and whimper, limping away before they’re either put down or barricade themselves and lick their wounds.

Like us, our punks become trained. Like a paintball metaphor involving some ex-Marines, they become terror-hardened by reality and so are we. Explained through paintball, we see the allegory to punk music. It’s a juvenile lens through which one can see horrible things. Real war is hell. Paintball’s childish violence allows for the tactics of death while only making their enemies, as the movies say, “pretend dead.” Being part of this culture, growing up playing punk rock and fake war, then being confronted with the messy realities of the real thing grimes the glamor and makes these kids seem like what they are: kids.

Saulnier has one of the pit bulls unleashed on the band escape, only to return to its abusive master later, not knowing what else to do. He puts us in the position of the tortured attack dog: people aren’t born like this. They learn it, become it, fail to escape it. These punks like playing loud music but they also like Madonna. They’re not racists; they’re not a drug cartel. The film’s ending has such poignancy, not because of the fates of anyone on screen, but because of what we’ve learned to tolerate and to hope. We used to be so innocent.

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).