A light in the darkness, a beacon to show the way. A perfect visual metaphor for her character as a whole.
In horror cinema, the treatment of its female characters is, at times, problematic. The Final Girl trope has both annoyed and thrilled genre fans ever since Lila Crane narrowly escaped death at the hands of Norman Bates in Psycho. Plainly, the Final Girl is a woman who makes it until (or near) the end of a horror film. She is all that is good, but she’s not a particularly good fighter. She’s usually lucky, and she’s often saved by a man. A Horror Heroine, on the other hand, is a clever strong-willed fighter who defeats the villain, or at least saves others in the end. Luck doesn’t figure into the Horror Heroine’s survival; she engages in a battle of smarts and comes out on top. In the 2016 siege horror Green Room, audiences were treated to a true-blue Horror Heroine, in the form of Amber.
If you continue reading past this point, it’s assumed that you’ve watched Green Room and won’t have a problem with the spoilers contained below. You’ve been warned.
That the film passes the Bechdel Test is only a starting point for the conversation about the humanization of its female characters. Both Sam and Amber strategize, endure, and make the decision to duke it out with Darcy and his henchmen, despite the odds. No man is responsible for defending their honor. Far from being damsels in distress, both women either attempt or succeed in rescuing themselves. Both are active participants in their own survival efforts. They are by no means passive or inevitable victims. Sure, Sam dies, but she goes down fighting; literally, gun blazing. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier went above and beyond the call of duty to give audiences a tightly wound story featuring fully fleshed out characters, but the one that warmed my cold, dark heart was Amber.
What makes Amber a Horror Heroine?
Amber is a Final Girl in application, but not in aesthetic. Amber doesn’t show up until 15 minutes into the film, and when she does she’s already the opposite of the innocent Final Girl trope. Our first glance of her is from behind so we get a good look at her nearly-shaved feathercut as she’s smoking a cigarette. She’s not hyper-sexualized for the male gaze, she’s wearing the unofficial skinhead uniform: jeans, Doc Martens, simple button-up shirt, utility jacket. Her style is a far cry from the modest JCPenny duds of Halloween’s Laurie Strode. Amber’s alternative look and her association with a dangerous subculture makes her more of a Horror Heroine, one whose lack of innocence doesn’t hinder her survival in any way.
Humanity before badassery; humanity after badassery. Saulnier’s penchant for putting his characters through the ringer is nothing new; his previous surprise hit Blue Ruin mercilessly beat down the protagonist Dwight at every plot turn. It is through this high-pressure process, however, that diamonds are extracted. Our second meeting with Amber is just after Ain’t Rights bassist Pat makes the biggest mistake of his life and enters a room without knocking. After he discovers Emily’s dead body, Amber stumbles forward and croaks, “Can you call the cops?” From her first words on screen, she’s immediately set aside as an innocent bystander, not to be associated with the scene that just unfolded. Once the Ain’t Rights are herded into the green room with the Neo-Nazi heavies and the door is locked, Amber is given a moment to grieve. She screams at Werm (the man who murdered her friend) and comes at him with her bare hands until she needs to be pulled off of him, kicking and screaming. I appreciate that Jeremy Saulnier took the time to round the character out like that, it makes the payoff so much sweeter when she pivots into Rambo mode. Considering the breakneck pacing of the film that leaves no room for frills, these few lines take Amber from Laurie Strode to Ellen Ripley in a matter of minutes. Lest you think she transforms into a cold-hearted bitch, Amber is further humanized during and after each skinhead death, with exception to the final scene of the film. She and all of the Ain’t Rights are scared, and each kill affects them. Tears stream down her face as she guts Big Justin, and again when she puts two bullets in a skinhead’s skull in the heroin den. All of Amber’s kills are necessary to save her life, but she is not getting out mentally unscathed. Saulnier could’ve easily sculpted the main protagonist Pat with this quality and left it at that, but he chose to apply that humanity to every character in that room, even the female ones.
Amber ’s triumph was achieved not by luck, but by wit. Our inept hero Pat was cursed with a crippling flaw: over-thinking. His struggle to answer the Desert Island band question became a running thread throughout the film and acted as a microcosm of his and the group’s approach toward the Red Laces, an approach that killed or wounded one of them every time they ventured from the room. It was at Amber’s suggestion that they implemented the wild card strategy from Pat’s paintball anecdote. Earlier in the film when Darcy’s men temporarily cut the power to the building, Amber opened a lighter and told everyone to “get comfortable”, with all of the calm of a woman who had been around the block before. She knew the enemy. She knew that they had procedures and methods for taking care of problems like these. When it became apparent that previous attempts weren’t working, Amber was the one to pivot and implement a new strategy. From that point on, she and Pat went into full guerrilla mode: utilizing cover and concealment, combat communication (”2 SHOTS LEFT!”), decoys, and ambushes. There was no serendipitous saved-by-the-cop moment. Much like Erin in You’re Next, Amber had to step up to the plate and engage with Darcy and the Red Laces with whatever she could find, and she did. Character-wise, that’s my kind of gal.
Multidimensional. I’d be remiss if I didn’t address a more glaring aspect of Amber’s identity: she’s a skinhead. The Ain’t Rights pointed it out in the green room, asking her how she could fall in with such a nasty crowd. Her response: “Let’s just say the people who hurt me were non-white.” In a single line, we are given a glimpse into her inner landscape, a bite of fleisch. While she didn’t begin the film as a victim, she most definitely alludes to a rough past. Regardless of what led to her association with “the movement”, by the time we meet her, it’s clear that she has acknowledged the hopelessness of the situation, and still chosen to fight. Those inner scars of her past integrate with her present actions with the band to create a fully-realized, compelling female character.
Amber matches her brains against the Red Laces’ brawn and comes out on top. Her pragmatic approach to neutralizing threats was a refreshing sight in a sea of whimpering Final Girls making ludicrous decisions in horror movies of the past. Her outlook was borderline nihilistic, and yet she was given enough depth to elicit empathy. She outwitted her opponents with little to no help from the male characters. Simply put, Amber is the Horror Heroine that the genre needs. Horror has long been known to hold up a mirror and show society its warts and bruises. In the age of Trump and Brexit, Darcys and Red Laces wear suits and designer shades, but that doesn’t make the threat on the other side of that green room door any less. Now more than ever, screenwriters and filmmakers would do well to give us more Ambers: WOC Ambers, LGBT Ambers, marginalized Ambers from every walk of life who won’t back down in the face of bigger, louder, stronger adversaries. Every once in a while a woman comes along that stomps all over the Final Girl trope. In 2016, that woman was Amber.
If you disagree, “Tell somebody who gives a shit.”
Anya Novak is a horror enthusiast and freelance writer, with bylines at Horror-Writers and Daily Grindhouse.