‘Green Street’ and Toxic Masculinity

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by George Forster.


This isn’t a ‘my guilty pleasure’ article, a shameful admission that I derive some form of sick satisfaction from an apparently trashy film, though judging by existing articles on Green Street (2005) it feels like it ought to be.

Green Street is the story of Matt (Elijah Wood), an American Journalism major who falls from grace after spinelessly taking the fall for a fellow Harvard student’s drug stash, falling in with a London football firm (basically a gang of hooligans) and learning the importance of knowing the “time to stand your ground and the time to walk away”.

I love this film, but everyone who has written about it seems to think it’s a bit crap – even people who do kind of like it…

After reading a few dozen pieces, it seems everybody read Green Street as a run-of-the-mill footie hooligan movie, as though Danny Dyer ought to have featured in a starring role. Now I don’t want to be rude, as everybody is entitled to their own subjective opinions on art, but I think these people missed the point. To me, Green Street is a very grounded story of personal development as well as a critique of the toxicity seemingly inherent in some male circles. The film contains layers of meaning well worth exploring, and I hope that after reading this you will consider rewatching the film or even checking it out for the first time, though there will be spoilers beyond this point, so be warned.

Violence

First off, I’d like to address one of the prominent critiques I’ve seen made about Green Street – its use and potential misuse of violence. It comes up in most reviews of the film, where it is argued that inter-firm conflict is glorified and treated as a positive. I imagine the straw man counter-narrator to myself leaning back in their chair, pushing their glasses to their brow and noting, with fatherly condescension: “violence, you see, is bad.”

So, is violence bad?

Well, yes, I suppose it is, but violence in film is rarely, if ever, just violence.

In Green Street, violence is something of a rite of passage. It at times assigns a good brawl the same principles espoused by Tyler Durden of Fight Club, but when Durden ridicules the Narrator for his lack of combat experience – asking him “how much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” – he is linking a man’s self-worth to some primal combative instinct, which is harmful and untrue. So why is Green Street any different?

Well, when cowardly Matt first becomes involved in a fight, he realises he is “not made of glass” and “the violence grew on [him].” Here, Matt’s increased readiness to do violence is representative of his newfound ability to stand up for himself, and he likes it.

Charlie Hunnam as Pete (left) and Elijah Wood as Matt (right).

Left unchecked, this character moment has the potential to grow out of hand and become toxic, but Green Street does not view violence without critique. There is often deep pathos in acts of violence by virtue of just how unnecessarily banal it all is. Like the Montagues and Capulets, West Ham’s GSE (Green Street Elite) and Millwall’s NTO fight for reasons beyond logic or historical relevance. GSE leader Pete (played with a questionable cockney imitation from Charlie Hunnam) likens the rivalry to “Israelis and Palestinians”, which speaks to the level of shared hatred between firms, though instead of complex historical and political factors at play, their feud boils down to little more than what postcode you live in.

In this absurdity, Green Street pauses to view violence through a different lens, and a more critical stance is adopted.

After witnessing NTO leader Tommy Hatcher’s (Geoff Bell’s) child killed in a petty brawl, Steve (Marc Warren), the former GSE leader dubbed ‘The Major’ gives up the lifestyle and retires into a comfortable middle-class existence. Following a later attack in which Hatcher almost kills Steve, a vast dock-side brawl is set up between both firms as a way to settle the score. Each side draws blood, and Hatcher murders Pete in a violent rage. In this moment, everybody stops fighting, watching on in horror as they realise how far they have taken their ridiculous prejudices and how tightly they have clung to their arbitrarily assigned identities.

Violence is shown in a very neutral light when taken as a whole – Green Street refrains from imposing moral judgement on the concept in its entirety, instead highlighting both violence’s power as a tool and as a vice.



Toxic Masculinity and Male Relationships

Men, and more specifically male identity, are also portrayed with oft-missed nuance. Certainly, these men are far from glorified as many have assessed, their aforementioned antics are not excused as much as the characters themselves are made sympathetic or, short of that, motivated.

Pete admits that he is prone to over-committing to firm violence and when we first meet him he is dismissive and brutish towards the diminutive “yank”. His relationship with Matt is the most developed in the film however, and Pete soon grows on Matt as well as the audience. He is charming, protective, good with kids, trusting of Matt and most importantly brave. Not simply knuckle headed and reckless – genuinely brave.

Bravery is a trait coded as being heavily masculine in western culture and when taken to the extreme it can certainly lead to toxic places, however bravery itself is a veritable positive. It is what Matt needs to learn to overcome his obstacles, but it is also what leads Pete to his death. This is how Green Street views coded male traits and male relationships as a whole – neither endorsement nor condemnation, instead the film elects to show both sides of the coin. Outcast Matt finds as much joy in being part of a group, all laughing and drinking, as he finds in building his courage through violence. Fraternity is incredibly important for young men – to have a sense of belonging, kinship and community. Fraternity can also be incredibly damaging for those same men as well as for those around them, just look at where it leads the GSE and NTO… brawling on the docks.

Conclusion

Like with its view of violence, Green Street treats its audience with the respect of allowing them to form their own conclusions on these relationships by taking a rather neutral stance on the issues at hand. This could arguably be a critique of the filmmaking – violence may well be something a creator ought to have a firm stance on, but that is a debate for another day.

This article is in no way me telling you that Green Street is a perfect film – I personally have a lot of criticisms – but these critiques fall on the shoulders of ropey accents, lack of female representation (there are only two women present and neither are what I could, in good faith, call characters), and other more common grievances with the technical aspects of filmmaking.

The heart, story and themes of Green Street, however, are very strong, and I believe the film to be criminally underrated, disregarded by most as trashy low-rent, something the film’s sequels admittedly do little to dispel.

Treated seriously, Green Street is an emotive, ecstatic and, frankly, Shakespearean tale that deserves a second look.

Written by George Forster


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