What a bunch of jackasses
by Thom Yee
I’m a pretty critical person, both in real life (of hypocrisy, bureaucracy, “the man”) and in writing (with movies, TV… y’know, all the easier stuff we discuss on this website), but one thing I’ve usually stayed away from and we’ve generally steered clear of here on GOO Reviews is music criticism. There’s just something about the culture of music (a lot of things actually) that makes an honest, heartfelt analysis of it a really difficult thing to do for anyone who’s written for this website (at least so far), and it’s just something we’ve largely been able to avoid to this point. Until now, until I watched Green Room, a movie in many ways about music.
So here it goes.
I think of all of the cultures regularly discussed, shared, and criticized in this broadly labelled sphere we call “pop”, music culture is probably the most exclusionary, or at least it seems the most happy, almost gleeful, to express itself through excluding others and putting up vague, poorly and inconsistently delineated walls between what’s good or bad, right or wrong. Once celebrated bands sell out or change their sound, pop acts turn out songs that define years and seasons before seemingly blinking out of existence, producers concoct boy or girl groups (or squads) out of auto-tunes and songs written by more talented but less attractive people, and it’s all cause for thought-provoking, news-headlining, life-changing furor, and far more than the movies, TV shows, and comicbooks we usually cover here, there’s a specific value in finding, preserving, and hoarding the manic indie thrill of musical obscurity, holding out for as long as a moment will allow before the elites relinquish their control by telling us they were into that band before they got famous.
Now more than ever (or maybe it’s always been this way?), it’s hard to be a fan of any one band or act because it’s so much easier to abandon whatever music we used to like after Pitchfork tells us us their lyrics lack substance or their latest album shows a lack of growth (it’s still okay to read Pitchfork, right?). As if there were some purity in your favourite band playing at half-empty clubs, not selling out, and never hitting it big (at least not while they’re still alive), or some essential truth that only you understand when people don’t know who you’re talking about when you tell them who your desert island band would be. “Ya gotta be there. Music is… for effect, it’s time and aggression… and it’s shared live. And then… it’s over, the energy… can’t last,” as Anton Yelchin’s Pat, Green Room’s main character, tells us early on in the film.
And I hate that.
Luckily, that sentiment, those ideas, all of that that artifice, is only how Green Room starts. Everything that’s good about it comes after.
What’s it about?
After a disappointing set that makes them almost no money and effectively ends their “tour”, the Ain’t Rights, a punk rock band travelling the Pacific Northwest, agree to take a gig at a local skinhead bar, but when guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) finds a stabbed girl lying dead on the floor of their green room, the band is trapped by the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist leader (Patrick Stewart).
Following 2007’s Murder Party and 2013’s Blue Ruin, Green Room is actually the third in an unofficial series of loosely connected movies by director Jeremy Saulnier who refers to them as his “inept protagonist” trilogy. All three deal with horrific themes, awful cruelty, and brutal, hair-raising tension, and at least the last two have become favourites among critics, but if you’re anything like… well, almost anyone, you probably haven’t seen any of them. I know I only watched Green Room because it’s kind of my job to see movies.
Though the easiest way to classify a movie like Green Room may be to call it a horror movie, it’s really more of a human-interest piece, even if the primary point of interest is seeing humans doing the wrong things and making decisions that get them killed. That’s a kind of horror, but it’s very different form the type of terror you feel from horror movies like The Conjuring or Lights Out in that it can’t be explained away as something supernatural and, therefore, not of our world. It’s undeniable because it’s real, and because that reality makes it a part of the world around us, it’s the type of horror that invites us in and naturally makes us wonder what we would do in the same situation. What would you do, trapped in a room deep in the bowels of a club owned by a group of hateful people who won’t let you leave?
Is it any good?
When we first meet our less-than-intrepid “heroes”, they’re just waking up from what was either a drunken, stoned, baked, or otherwise wrecked stupor, their “tour van” having come to an unplanned stop in the middle of a cornfield the night before. Having left the engine on all night, they’re forced to siphon gas from cars in a nearby parking lot before making it to their intended destination where they trade an interview for temporary room and board with a local radio host before moving on to their next gig in a depressing-looking café where they make next to no money. They have no social media presence, little in the way of personal resources, and only one phone between all four of them, and their entire MO seems built on resisting even the idea of gainful employment. My first thought? What a bunch of jackasses.
There’s something to be said for the purity of art, there’s much to be said about pursuing your craft, and with the continued erosion of the traditional American way of life, it’s understandable when the more individualistic among us would choose to go their own way, but from what they say to how they act to what they proclaim to believe, it’s hard to like anyone in this wretched little band. You get the feeling from the Ain’t Rights that their rebellion comes more from growing up in a generation that’s had the luxury of intentionally choosing a difficult path rather than being forced to take it.
So I guess I should feel like it’s a good thing that they don’t all survive. But I don’t. That’s why the movie works. For a movie about a band, we never really get to hear much of their actual music as director Saulnier seems much more concerned with showing us the contents of the situation rather than articulating what the Ain’t Right’s music is trying so desperately to say. It’s not long into the movie that this imagined world of self-righteous musicality completely caves in and we start to see just how desperate things can really get when these characters go from a bad situation to a horribly, murderously, sick-attack-dogs-on-them sh*tshow, and somewhere along the way you start to sympathize with them if only because things just keep getting worse for them. As the various members of the Ain’t Rights make their various individual and mostly unsuccessful escapes, the sense of tension is constantly increasing, and the deaths that do come almost come more as a relief.
At the same time, there’s an odd calmness and a sort of rationality to all of these characters, including the bad guys, and it keeps the movie from ever becoming as simple as good vs. evil. I actually felt really bad about the death of one of the neo-Nazis, and Patrick Stewart, as the apparent big bad of the group, is also surprisingly sympathetic. The movie never gets to the point of having any real heroes or villains, and with many of the characters, the whole situation just feels like people caught on two different sides rather than put at odds because of their diametrically opposed views. There are even other, almost completely tangential stories going on all around the movie’s main focus, and maybe the best thing Green Room does is not waste time overexplaining them or tying them in too tightly to the central narrative. It trusts that you’re smarter than that.
So should I see it?
In a way, Green Room struck me more as a coming of age movie than a horror movie or a thriller, even if that coming of age is more sudden and horrible and taking-place-while-trapped-by-a-group-of-neo-Nazis-intent-on-killing-you than most of us are used to. It starts off about something artificial and affected in the form of this punk rock band believing in their artificial and affected world before showing them how bad things can really be, not because the world is full of evil, but because the world just feels too full sometimes and we all have our own ways of dealing with that, all too often by repeating cycles of hate that can start with something as simple as liking different music all the way up to believing in a different god.
Or maybe that’s just me projecting. I’ll tell you that you should see Green Room mostly because it’s a good movie that’s very good at what it’s obviously trying to do as a horror-thriller, but it’s also fairly miserable and not necessarily something that you’re going to enjoy, and, frankly, you might not like it at all. At its best, highest point, it shows the cost of the reckless hatred that divides us, but at its worst, it’s watching a bunch of people you don’t particularly like doing dumb things that get them killed. And if it were me in that situation? I probably would have pretended that I didn’t notice the dead body at all. But I’m good at hiding my reactions like that.
Thom’s Green Room final score
On the Edge
- My desert island band? It can’t be Phil Collins, right?
- So the extended Star Trek crossover with Chekov (Yelchin)/Picard (Stewart) should be obvious, but there’s also an extended Arrested Development crossover of sorts going on with Alia Shawkat starring in this movie with Mark Webber, who starred in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with Michael Cera
- It’s kind of funny seeing Patrick Stewart as the leader of a group of neo-Nazis here when he basically plays the exact opposite role in the X-Men
- With this being one of actor Anton Yelchin’s last films, I feel like I should talk about him for a second. I’m not the kind of guy who gets overly attached to any particular actor or gets weepy when I hear about someone famous dying (other than when I heard that John Ritter had died), but for me reading about Anton Yelchin’s was one of those “What?!?!?!?” moments that’ll probably stick with me for a while. He’s always been good on screen and a standout, and his is one of those actor deaths that feels like a genuine loss.
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