On the night of Tuesday, May 3, just as the clock struck 10 p.m., me and a few compatriots went to see an independent film about a punk band and a group of neo-Nazis brutally murdering each other. The movie is called “Green Room,” and it is excellent. It features great performances from Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots as the leaders of the group of punks, and Patrick Stewart—his performance and mannerism unrecognizable from the noble, awesome Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the insane elitism of CIA director Avery Bullock of “American Dad”—as the leader of the neo-Nazis, in addition to excellent direction from Jeremy Saulnier, fantastic cinematography and punk music that actually sounds good—and not just good for a movie.
It is also arguably the most violent film I have ever seen. I have seen many films in my years as a movie-watcher, and the violence within them is a rainbow of various shades of blood and gore that has been spilled. From the impressionistic bloodshed of samurai dramas to the infamous woodchipper scene in “Fargo,” I could probably make an entire book of my favorite movie deaths. Some of them have affected me, as when a favorite character dies—the woodchipper scene—while others have made me laugh a bit at how ridiculous they are …also the woodchipper scene. But “Green Room” is special. It is a testament to Saulnier’s talent that you feel bad even for the villains when they are killed. Sure it is self defense, but at the same time these are all people who have made choices that have led them to where they are, and whom oftentimes did not even realize what kind of choice they were making. But every single death matters: there are no zombie hordes you can misidentify, you know every face and who they were when they die. Even when Stewart’s character meets his fate, it does not feel cathartic. Instead, there’s a profound sense that it had to be this way, and that is wrong.
At first, after seeing this film, one wonders why exactly this movie has not become huge since it began its nationwide rollout a few weeks ago. It does not really make much sense: here is a really well made horror-thriller, counter program to the fantastical blows the Avengers will be dealing to each other in “Captain America: Civil War” across a few thousand screens multiple times a day in the coming weeks. This has everything people want: death, good music and pretty people in horrible situations. The trifecta! Is everything so beholden to marketing that anything that does not have $100 million to spend to cover every billboard, T.V. commercial break and lunchbox in the country is inherently doomed?
Then it hit me: it is because the film is violent that people for the most part are not going to see it. Let me explain: we have all heard the arguments that people—usually young adults and teenagers—do not understand violence because of all our video games and blockbuster movies and the like. You know, the kind of thing people who say “back in my day” without a hint of humor. There is the idea that Americans are being more vulgar, more garish with what they say and do. For God’s sake, the presumptive Republican nominee for president made fun of a man with a disability and a good chunk of the country ate it up! It makes sense to think that the idea of American “values”—however one defines that term—are being corrupted and that we are lost to being desensitized to the loss of human life.
This is what was once called the “culture of death,” and it is haughty nonsense.
Right now I am going to tell you something you may not know. There is a video of Muammar Gaddafi, former dictator of Libya, being killed. I have watched it, it is available online; the video quality is terrible, and you do not really see the final blow that kills him, but the fact of the matter is one of the most hated men in modern history was murdered on camera and it was not broadcast all over the news. The reason for this is because as horrible as Gaddafi was, the man is begging for his life and his body is broken before they kill him with his own weapons. That image, even with context, is genuinely disturbing.
Similarly, remember all the “Saw” films, and how they gradually turned into self parody? How long has it been since people watched the first one? It still holds up as a crafty, disturbing thriller much more than any of the sequels. The same is with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Any depiction of violence that is honest which we can actually behold with our own eyes inevitably disturbs people and reminds us on how fragile nature is, as well as our own mortality.
This is why someone’s arm getting broken in “Green Room” is so much more disturbing then the fact that Robert Downey Jr. gets his entire body wrecked every time he plays Iron Man. It is because we realize the latter is not real. It is just pretend, and showing someone that’s human, something like “Green Room” does, makes us remember that it could easily happen to us, and that is what we actually live with. This is why a film like this does not get traction; not because it does not give us what we want, but because it makes us remember that what we want is not entertainment. It is horror.