The allure and purpose of violence in the cinema has always been a subject that has intrigued me. Much like other depictions of the explicit or the perverse, the topic elicits strong—and sometimes extreme—responses in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable, when the portrayal of violence or brutality should be used, and whether a film should be condemned for crossing the line into the dreaded territory of “too much.”
Typically, cinematic violence falls into two categories: realistic violence, which is most often used to depict the brutality and stakes of a given event or scenario (the D-Day opening in Saving Private Ryan), or comical/exaggerated violence, which serves to heighten excitement and eliminate realism (consider the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill). But watching Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the small-scale revenge tale Blue Ruin, I found myself reconsidering the natural purpose and function of violence in movies, and why we—and perhaps myself in particular—are so drawn to it.
The violence in Green Room is unrelenting, realistic, and horrifying. The film might not fit our traditional idea of a horror film, but it can hardly be described as anything else. Blood is shed, guts are spilled, machetes are swung with abandon. None of this is done with any sense of fun—whereas most horror movies provide bits of humor, or overtly stupid (or unlikable) characters who serve no function but to get their bloody comeuppance, the victims in Green Room are normal people, likable and perhaps even admirable, and completely innocent of the trouble they find. They simply wind up in the wrong place (the dressing room at a skinhead club, where they’ve been booked on a makeshift punk rock van tour) at the wrong time (witnessing a murder). For that, they are imprisoned, hounded, and hunted down.
None of this is particularly pleasant. But it is also an incredibly engrossing film, one that pulls and plucks your nerves by refusing to be anything you want it to be. In most horror films, you can find—no matter how thin it might be—some thread of mythos or symbolic meaning. Even the most base slasher films speak to a sort of fear of growing up (no matter how shallow or tasteless their execution). Green Room does not function in this manner. This is not a film designed to illustrate that neo-Nazis are bad and should be avoided (hopefully, that is obvious). It is not a film about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of grave danger, or the miracle of the will to survive. It simply is what it is, which is nasty and enamoring. And perhaps that absence of meaning is how we can truly define what sort of film Green Room is: nihilist.
This is a film that offers us no redemption, no hope, and no purpose. Brutality occurs because the world can be randomly brutal. That isn’t a statement or moral, it’s simply a fact. When a character is mauled to death by a dog, it symbolizes nothing. The film ends with something of a victory, although with no answers. If there is a definitive lesson to take from it, it may be the many ways one can use duct tape for first aid.
Why, then, does Green Room work so well? This is a film that should be repellent (and certainly, many people probably will or do view it that way). But I watched it in a state of near boundless excitement, perhaps even joy. Not at what was transpiring on screen—like most horror films, we are able to divorce the proceedings from how they make us feel; that is the purpose of the illusion of cinema—but at the fact that a film like this exists at all. It is expertly directed, wonderfully acted (particularly, by Patrick Stewart, the often underrated Alia Shawkat, and the late Anton Yelchin), and relentlessly paced. And all of this serves one single purpose: to stare into the void, the abyss of the absence of meaning. That sort of nihilism is rarely seen in the cinema we watch, but certainly we all feel it in our lives, at some point or another. We question our beliefs, our purpose, our faith (if we have any), our jobs and roles and day-to-day lives. There are moments when, undoubtedly, we wonder if any of it means anything, or if we are only fooling ourselves into behaving well so that we can still function within society. Typically, the basic ideology of the cinema—especially American cinema—reinforces this idea. The couple either gets together or breaks up, but either way, a lesson is learned. The final girl or boy sees their friends butchered, but finds a way to defeat the evil and restore order (one might even argue that in franchises where the killer becomes the main character, their invincibility establishes a sort of order to be followed). The war is won or lost, but triumphs of the human spirit and bravery are displayed. In all of these situations (and almost any other), the underlying ideology is the same: life has value, its achievements are tangible, its lessons are worthwhile.
But what if, of course, none of that is true? What if there is just randomness? The thought is terrifying, but seeing it embraced—as it is in Green Room—can be thrilling, if only because we so rarely dive into the void head on. Here is a movie to test us, to scare us, and to show us that we may enjoy the mayhem of the meaningless. Here is violence to serve the purpose of illustrating that there is no purpose. It is unceasing, it is chilling, it is completely absorbing and absolutely thrilling.