By Brad Avery
On January 13, the Brattle is pairing Green Room (2016) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) on an inspired double bill. Even though these films are separated by genre – science fiction versus stark realism – the juxtaposition sheds a whole new light on both films through their common themes of entrapment, gaslighting and the horror of ordinary people being hunted by authoritarians.
Both films received wide release this past spring, right around the point in the primaries where the U.S. presidential nominees were taking shape. Even at that recent point in history, the political truths exhibited in both films didn’t come across as strongly as they ring today when viewed on the cusp of the inauguration.
The most shocking byproduct of this past U.S. presidential election is, perhaps, the return of Nazism to the mainstream. Born from 4chan and other like-minded sites, the so-called “alt-right” have dolled up detestable white nationalist politics with internet memes, anime and ironic comedic sensibilities. They’re ultimately a different beast from the more familiar Neo-Nazi movements you may have encountered which are marked by direct physical strength, violence and cult-like imagery with a skinhead/jackboot dress code. Those Nazis have always been here, for decades brewing in rural regions where they’re able to breathe and grow in their isolated communities. They too have felt the surge of Nazism’s comeback and it is no longer safe for Americans to assume “it can’t happen here.”
Could director Jeremy Saulnier, while filming in 2014, have predicted the rash of publicized Nazism in his third feature, Green Room? It is a brutal, tense and brilliant work that would handily rank as one of the best punk rock movies ever made, regardless of the geopolitical situation. But taken in the wake of an American far-right resurgence Green Room is, unfortunately, far more than a romp about obscure subcultures.
Set in Oregon, Green Room is the story of The Ain’t Rights, a punk band in need of a gig to pay for their trip back home to Washington, D.C. After driving hundreds of miles to a cancelled show, they wind up booking a backup to play a matinee show in what turns out to be a Nazi punk bar located in the backwoods. The show goes better than expected, however, as the band is preparing to leave, bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) runs back to the green room to grab a left-behind cell phone and witnesses the aftermath of a murder. A girl has been stabbed in the head by one of the members of the concert’s Nazi headliner. The bar staff grab The Ain’t Rights and lock them in the green room until they can summon their leader, Darcy (Patrick Stewart), to figure out how to best dispose of the witnesses. The band is trapped with a guard and must use their wits and brute force to fight their way out.
One of the more poignant scenes in Green Room is during The Ain’t Rights set when they decide to let the crowd know where they stand with a bitter cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” In true punk fashion, this earns them a barrage of beer bottles and heckling.
Written in 1981 by the Kennedys’ singer Jello Biafra, the song was initially intended as an attack on the so-called punks in the scene who would come to shows to start fights and cause trouble – likening their jock behavior to Nazis. But around that same time, actual Nazi ideology began pervading the punk scene. White supremacists liked the harsh, fast sound and aggressive atmosphere punk. Soon Nazi bands with racist messaging gained prominence, using the appeal of the music to recruit angry young kids and make some money off of them at the same time.
The Dead Kennedys themselves were even mistaken for a Nazi band early in their life thanks to satirical songs in the repertoire like “Kill the Poor” and “California Uber Alles.” With real Nazis to deal with, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” took on a new literal meaning. The lyrics, which are performed in full in Green Room, don’t mince words:
Ten guys jump one, what a man
You fight each other, the police state wins
Stab your backs when you trash our halls
Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls
You still think swastikas look cool
The real Nazis run your schools
They’re coaches, businessmen and cops
In a real Fourth Reich you’ll be the first to go
Nazi punks, Nazi punks, Nazi punks
Nazi punks, Nazi punks, Nazi punks
In 2012, Biafra told the LA Times he still plays the song today and it is especially popular in countries in South America, the Balkans and Eastern Europe where the crowds have lived through state fascism. There’s an irony that punk rock – a strictly anti-authoritarian philosophy – would become attractive to these working class authoritarians who consider fellow workers the source of their problems. Those in power maintain and benefit from the power structure by dividing the lower classes through race and religion, so “Nazi punk” as it’s known bears no actual resemblances to the anti-power punk rock ethos. Opposite anarchy, fascism demands a strong leader for the followers to look up and listen to; in today’s revamped version of Nazism people like Richard Spencer are scrambling to fill that role.
“Remember, this is a movement not a party,” Darcy says to his underlings. Ultimately, the music and beer are just a good time promised to lure in kids to the cult.
In Green Room, we also have The Ain’t Rights, who will piss off every person in the room to stay true to their anti-fascist principles. But then there is Darcy, the cautious and conniving skinhead leader who is more organized and ruthless than a lone band.
Patrick Stewart warps his natural British charm into something sinister in the role as he bargains with the band to leave the green room they’ve barricaded themselves in. The band, panicked and unsure, don’t know to what degree they can trust him to tell the truth. It’s here we can see fascism in action, using a distressed public to do a leader’s bidding by playing with their emotions, mixing truth with lies and masking a violent plan underneath the surface. Darcy appears to be mature and reasonable – a dolled-up version of Nazism much like the alt-right – but in actuality he is just as ruthless and bigoted as his minions, so long as he doesn’t need to do the dirty work personally. He commands his clan – made up exclusively of disaffected working class white men – and offers them acceptance and a place of belonging. His most loyal clansmen (those most willing to slaughter) receive red shoelaces for their boots.
As fascism by its nature is about control, control is gained by cornering your prey and keeping them under lock and key until they break. If they stay in place (say a single room), they will remain unharmed but still under psychological abuse. If they try to flee or fight back they are unceremoniously mowed down by the leader’s wrath.
The other half of this double feature, 10 Cloverfield Lane, begins with a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), driving into the night in rural Louisiana. Michelle is run off road by a truck driven by conspiracy theorist Howard (John Goodman). The next we see, Michelle wakes up chained to a pipe in an underground cellar. Howard claims he saved her life from a mysterious explosion – possibly the Russians or the Martians – and that she cannot leave due to fallout on the surface. They are joined by Howard’s neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) who was hired by Howard to build the bunker and who claims he also witnessed the explosion. After several escape attempts, Michelle learns that Howard may have been telling the truth and settles into life underground. Howard, however, is unstable and violent, leaving Michelle and Emmett a tough decision: stay or risk life outside?
Much like Green Room, our protagonists are trapped in a tight space where the outside world is hostile and deadly, but the tyrant is in the room too. Howard, like Darcy, is a manipulator. Except instead of a smooth talker, Howard is played as almost a parody of country bumpkin types. He’s an ex-military survivalist who believes the attack may just as likely have been from Russia, Iran, or whichever one is the bad Korea as it is to have come from extraterrestrial space worms. And while Darcy’s tactic is to sow doubt whether or not he’s trustworthy, Howard’s methods of abuse are guilt, bursts of rage and an insistence on his version of reality being the only version of reality. In Green Room we see a reminder of the real Nazi threat that just will not die, and in Cloverfield we see the danger of a mind rotted by conspiracy theories and fantasies of being a respected and feared leader.
Howard frequently belittles Michelle, accusing her of being ungrateful for his “sacrifices.” The constant abuse, backed with violence, forces Michelle to become subservient and ultimately to accept his version of events – that the outside world is poisoned – as the only truth.
What director Dan Trachtenberg achieves so well here is that the audience is as much a victim of Howard’s gaslighting as Michelle. Like her, we’re often unsure if he’s telling the truth about the explosion that has forced them underground or if this is some elaborate scam he has concocted to justify kidnapping. He repeats his beliefs so frequently and loudly they start to feel true even if the evidence is thin, or unexplored. At times he seems even endearing. When he is calm he can be courteous and friendly, as if what he is doing truly is out of the selflessness of his heart and not the perverted selfishness of an unstable abuser.
Both films in their way are about fascism. Cloverfield shows us that a fascist mindset doesn’t need to be organized and effective to be deadly. It can take the form of domestic violence and misogyny – the controlling fathers or husbands who beat and lock up women are coming from the same cut as the Nazis who rabble their base to violence against minorities. In the end, Cloverfield even exhibits a different form of invasion and extermination to seal the metaphor.
Ultimately, what The Ain’t Rights and Michelle both fight for is freedom from oppressors and violent authority. This isn’t easily achieved, and they can’t do it without earning their scars. But the need for freedom is almost an instinct. The “triumph of the will” isn’t in the mass display of power and Nazism, it’s in the heart of the individual willing to tear those Nazis down.