Donna Haraway draws a distinction between killing and “making killable”—namely, emphasizing the constant vulnerability of the body to infinite depths of pain, injury and trauma, fatal and otherwise, with an effect (intent?) of psychological harm, of fear and disquiet. The qualified success of Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is that it makes its heroes killable. The film sets up four unassuming punk rockers on tour, performing a mostly standard gig in a decidedly unusual venue—an Aryan dive in the Oregon backwoods—and brimming with casual life. They operate unaware (and the audience is only slightly more aware) that at least most of them are on the verge of having their lives, minds and bodies brutally snuffed out, all because one of them—Anton Yelchin—sees something he should never have seen, on a total fluke. Saulnier—who made cinema history by filming his galvanic revenge thriller Blue Ruin mainly on Kickstarter funds—is so eager to be so ruthless, to spill so much blood and drop so many bodies in his first hour that with another half-hour to go, he runs out of steam and goods. He levels the playing field for the good guys still alive at that point, Yelchin and Imogen Poots (as a traitor to the Aryans), and in effect goes too easy on them. The skinheads, led by a cast-against-type Patrick Stewart, depart to dispose of some corpses and leave two of their own behind to finish what should have been an effortless job. Two versus two, and the good guys come out on top. One youngish skinhead (Macon Blair, the big discovery in Blue Ruin) comes to clean up and sees what’s happened, and his character goes through a ludicrous inversion. Yelchin and Poots’ vendetta against the Aryans plays out as planned. What should have been an operatic catastrophe, with slower pacing, fizzles to blandness. There is one neat touch: the guy who arranged the gig, vacuuming his flat the morning after, oblivious to the carnage that he has caused.
In a sense, Yelchin’s sudden death this past Sunday, at the musically cursed age of 27, completes the circle of blood that Green Room started and came close to going all the way on. That may sound cruel, and it is, but it’s a legitimate thought. (After the Aurora shooting, David Thomson wrote a great piece bashing the film while empathizing with the catastrophe, comparing the film’s Hollywood delusions about good always triumphing with the monstrous truth of the massacre.) This death was an avoidable one, caused by a downward slope, a brick mailbox/gateway post, a Jeep that had been recalled over a shitty gearshift, and a case of wrong place, wrong time that seems right up Saulnier’s narrative alley. It should never have happened. No one can be blamed for watching Green Room and seeing this talented Russian actor at work and not knowing that he had two months to live—that that mind and body would be pinned in such a way and would thus never grow old—even granted the film’s nasty attack-dog violence. An artist as young as him, developing his craft and looking forward to an enviable career, isn’t quite “killable”—until he is. And so, we are left with another entry into the pantheon of what-ifs. All that I will ever know is that I admired him in The Beaver; the pain and adrenaline his character alternated in Green Room was palpable and genuine; and his handling of Charlie Bartlett, the awkward guy who’s just good enough a sweet-talker to make a name for himself in the high school hierarchy, was expert and will likely go down as a career-best. (Others will add his lead in Like Crazy and his Chekov in Star Trek to the list.) There should and would have been more and better; awards and legend were in the cards. Foregoing the sentimental clichés about how every day is a blessing, I must say that there is a lesson in this for filmmakers and for anyone interested in achieving philosophical maturity: it isn’t truly horror unless the circumstances make everyone “killable,” because that’s what real life is like, and most cinema doesn’t compare.