Thumbing through the wildly entertaining and depressingly out-of-print Destroy All Movies!!!: A Complete Guide to Punks on Film, it becomes glaringly obvious that there’s a lack in loyalty towards punks in narrative cinema past the mid 90s. It kinda died with SLC Punk, a film which at first leaned on glorifying punk before landing on “Well, it’s mostly fashion-based anyway, and you’ll probably die a young death.” As the intellectualization of the movement thrived, so did documentaries like End of the Century and American Hardcore. Skinhead narratives prospered more strongly, even if the past decade has seen a void. Given the recent political climate in America, it’s clear that white supremacy doesn’t pose any less of a threat as it did before. Whatever was subtle or implicit before has risen to the top. For punk rock, perhaps we’ve seen a deficit in cinematic interpretations because, well, punk is couture. We don’t need to draw on it because it’s slipped into everyday life on a more widespread level. It’s not uncommon to see a denim vest with a backpatch on hip people, just as tattoos and half-buzzed heads no longer will ruin your chance at a promotion. The fashion has settled in so comfortably that we barely see punks as even moving scenery, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! being a respectable exception. The brief scene in Linklater’s film where baseball bros attend a punk show without leaving with a black eye holds a reverence for the young, loud, and snotty that Jeremy Saulnier poses early in his new film Green Room: punks are, for the most part, reasonable and well-adjusted placeholders in society.
In the 21st century, a punk band could feasibly play an afternoon gig at a pizza joint and not get a trash can thrown at them. Though they dress in tatters and live cheap, there’s a contradictory posturing among the members of touring hardcore band The Ain’t Rights (Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Callum Turner) that seems reminiscent of suburban crust-punk bands I knew in Connecticut. When interviewed by the mohawked scene rep with the nice apartment, they claim to not want to be “plugged in” or promote on Facebook, even though in the next scene an iPhone appears in their hands. When asked what desert island bands they have, almost every member gives the right answer. And when leafing through the rep’s record collection, kudos is given; “this guy’s true,” one declares. But on the other hand, if one is anti-establishment, isn’t it more truthful to find refuge deep in the sticks, where vile notions of racial supremacy and gang violence as rites of passage are celebrated, even if the establishment you’re rebelling against is rooted in bigotry and bloodshed? Indeed, what’s “true” is what Saulnier explores, but the scenester commentary is lowered background hum. He’s not interested in grandstanding about legitimacy so much as he’s more interested in bravery in the space of carnage, and the varied notions of punk rock just so happen to fit that test perfectly. What Saulnier seeks is not truth within the ideology onscreen, but his own as a genre filmmaker. Is it his charge to truly be an outcast and draw upon the most primal instincts, or does he only adhere to surface, which reaches further in its appeal? Or, as we see in the slowed down, ethereal sequence of The Ain’t Rights blasting riffs while suspicious skins mosh and stomp, should he reach a common ground between the two?
Green Room is, above all, a resuscitation of genre filmmaking not unlike Blue Ruin, Saulnier’s spin on the solitary revenge yarn (that film’s star, Macon Blair, returns as a skin caught between sides). Like the best punk or hardcore, it’s stripped to the bare essentials: an energetic action film with two armies, one primary location, and plenty of opportunities for the old ultra-violence. There’s an old cliche with touring punks about “survival,” but the Ain’t Rights have no idea how true that will be for them. They steal gas and scrounge their last dollars from poorly planned shows while on tour in the Pacific Northwest, coasting through the foliage that partly inspires the film’s name. They finally score a show at a skinhead roadhouse, nervously tossing gasoline onto a fire by playing the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” That inspires tension, maybe a slur or a tossed beer, but the violence doesn’t rupture from that single event. Though they oppose in their aged but prevalent beliefs, they are nevertheless united by a need to rock the fuck out.
So the show progresses without a hitch. One member forgets their phone in the green room (where stickers declaring “Anti-Racism = Anti-White” are pasted), and once the retrieval is made, so is the discovery of a dead girl, her big and bald slayers standing about (plus Imogen Poots, whose levelheadedness provides the film’s last, and best, bit of dialogue). The Ain’t Rights become hostages, but soon the hostage-takers are taken hostage, resulting in the arrival of Patrick Stewart, looking full Walter White Supremacist as the leader of the pack. Though it is not Stewart’s first outing as a villain, enough time has established the classically trained thespian as a born leader and adorable humorist to mark his portrayal of Darcy as nothing short of sinister. Darcy seeks out “true believers” (heed that, Marvel fans!), who are dedicated killers looking to earn their red bootlaces atop the neo-Nazi food chain. Stewart is the highest profile bit of casting in an unstoppable ensemble piece, even if he steps aside to let the youngsters bathe in each other’s blood, but his absence from most of the film nevertheless aids Green Room’s horrendous dread that persists all the way through. The hand-to-hand and bludgeon-heavy combat provides both an intensity and an intimacy not seen in contemporary American films, let alone outside a sweaty mosh pit.