It probably is not a coincidence that, in 2016, A24 released their horror-thriller masterpiece Green Room the same month that Republican presidential candidate Donald Tr*mp announced this “America First” foreign policy platform, laced with xenophobic rhetoric and blistering white rage. White nationalism helped to define American politics of the 2010s. Green Room took notice and crafted a film that explores the nightmarish scenario of punk rockers being hunted down by neo-Nazis in a music dive bar basement in backwoods Oregon– and manages to be one of the most visceral horror thrillers of the decade.
Jeremy Saulnier wrote and directed Green Room after his critically acclaimed indie thriller Blue Ruin, which was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign and went on to win a slew of independent film awards and charted many critics top ten lists in 2014. In an interview with Slash Film, Saulnier described his inspiration for making Green Room: “Having been in a punk band and falling in love with the aesthetic and the energy and the music, I’ve been at lots of concert venues. I thought it would be really cool to capture that energy. What better place in a venue to set a siege thriller than the green room? It was my obsession.”
Green Room follows a punk band called the Ain’t Rights, composed of Pat, Sam, Reece, and Tiger as they tour the Pacific Northwest. Struggling for money, they accept meals as payment and syphon gas from strangers in parking lots to get around. After arrangements for their next show falls through, they take on a new gig at a bar in a rural area outside of Portland.
When the band discovers that they’re playing at a skinhead bar and opening for a neo-Nazi black metal band, they’re distressed but have no other options given their financial strains as a struggling touring punk rock band. Despite being Jewish, bassist Pat makes a suggestion to the band: troll the crowd by opening the show with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ 1981 anti-racist punk song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” The band agrees and the band kicks off their set with the cover. This prompts some of the more ardent white supremacists in the crowd to angrily filter out after throwing bottles and spitting at the band.
Green Room’s violent antagonists are products of white rage (or “white backlash”), a term used to describe the negative response of white people to the racial progress of ethnic minority groups– usually in respect to economic opportunities and political and cultural rights. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, philosopher George Yancy discussed the backlash from his New York Times op-ed “Dear White America,” which was published the same year that Green Room released to Cannes. Yancy asserts that white rage is the visceral negative emotional reaction at the idea of one examining their own white privilege.
Yancy wrote “Dear White America” to provide white Americans an open invitation to be vulnerable in acknowledging and discussing their position of privilege in America. The Black American and Yale alumnus received “an extraordinary number of responses from white readers,” who harassed Yancy with hate mail and death threats. About the impassioned response he received, Yancy told The Guardian:
“I think that the anger resulted from a defensive posture, one that is linked to a failure of nerve and honesty that is needed for white people to confront courageously the truth about how racism is insidious and constitutes the DNA of white America. Fear can breed anger, but I wanted a courageous white America, one prepared to remove the masks of self-deception, to love in return.”
In the early 1990s, a new term was coined to describe the type of folks who patronize the neo-Nazi bar in Green Room: angry white male, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a usually working-class white man with-right wing views, typically including opposition to liberal anti-discriminatory policies, especially viewed as representing an influential class of voter.
The angry white male is characterized by animosity towards women and racial minorities and are often cited as helping propel socially and economically regressive movements in American culture and politics– notably opposing the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism. In a op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, Francis Wilkinson describes white angry males as the driving force behind the presidential campaign of Donald Tr*mp.
In Green Room, the portrayal of the villains are consistent with this definition of the white angry male. When the band arrives at the neo-Nazi bar, the proverbial green room is decorated with confederate flags, homophobic slurs, white power stickers, and various Nazi emblems. Above the door reads “Anti-Racist Equals Anti-White.” When the band looks out into the crowd, it’s unsurprisingly all white and nearly all male.
The band gets paid after the show, packs their bags in a hurry, and leaves. But when guitarist Sam realizes she had forgotten her cell phone in the green room, Pat goes back to retrieve it. There he stumbles upon something he wasn’t meant to see: members of the headlining neo-Nazi band crowded around the body of a murdered woman. In shock, he tries to flee but the band is captured and held captive by the bar employees– forcing the band to get creative in their efforts survive and fight their way through waves of white supremacists.
Darcy: Now Gentlemen and Ladies. Whatever you saw or did… Is no longer my concern. But let’s be clear… this won’t end well.
Green Room benefits from incredible performances by some of the most exciting young actors in the biz in 2015 including Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Imogen Poots, and the great Anton Yelchin (who tragically passed in 2016). The chemistry between the characters feels exciting and believable– as Saulnier clearly made good use of his past experience in the punk scene. Of course, Patrick Stewart gives a bone-chilling performance as the godfather of the local neo-Nazi movement.
Director Jeremy Saulnier makes expert use of the film’s tight narrative. Green Room is essentially a story of survival– shifting in tone between slow-building suspense to exploitation-style ultra-violence. Still, this film never drifts too far into the realm of pitch-black bleakness nor does it try to make any grand statements about the heavy subject matter on screen. Green Room never tries be anything it’s not– instead opting to be a stylishly gruesome horror thriller that provides a terrifying look into the white rage that was bubbling to the surface in a pre-Tr*mp America.