Written by: Eli Roth & Guillermo Amoedo
Directed by: Eli Roth
Starring: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, and Aaron Burns
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Look, it's good they ate Jonah first. He should last them almost a week."
What does it mean to make an exploitation movie in the year 2015? Considering how artists have been pushing cinematic limits for decades now, you might assume it’d be tougher than ever to provoke. However, anyone with an ear to the ground on the internet (particularly various social media outlets) know that it’s actually easier than ever to incite outrage, however fleeting said outrage may be. Without even taking Eli Roth’s recent promotion of the film (which included appealing to the sort of folks who consider the term “social justice warrior” to be a pejorative) into account, it’s clear that the schlock-master knows exactly who he’s trying to rib with The Green Inferno.
In the grand tradition of its predecessors, this update of the cannibal genre is a calculated attempt at trolling an audience; in this case, it’s an indelicately crafted middle finger directly aimed towards an outrage culture that feeds upon itself. All it’s missing is a scene where characters wonder aloud about who “the real cannibals are”; otherwise, it’s a worthy successor to the mountain of decomposed skulls that form this genre’s throne.
Another tale of oblivious American college students meeting an exotic doom on Roth's watch, The Green Inferno is a tale of two halves. The first half is out of the familiar mold in that the director subjects you to a group of kids who you may or may not want to be eaten alive. Freshman student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) has the faintest sense of social justice in that loud protesters outside of her dorm wake her up every morning. That their leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), is sort of cute makes it bearable. But no sooner is she outraged by Amazon tribes practicing female genital mutilation is she drawn into Alejandro’s mission to preserve said tribes. Before she knows it, she’s on a plane bound for Peru in an effort to sabotage a logging company’s attempt to ravage the rainforest at any costs. She truly has no idea just how far in over her head she is, especially when the plane crashes, stranding the group, and leaving them at the mercy of the very natives they’ve come to protect.
Before delving into the thorny philosophical and formal issues with The Green Inferno, I almost feel compelled to acknowledge what a goddamn miracle it is to see a Italian cannibal homage make it into wide release in the year 2015. With it having been shelved for over a year, it might have been easy for a company to dump it with little fanfare, but Jason Blum (via his Blumhouse Tilt label) continues to be an indispensable genre advocate. This weekend, the same multiplexes showing the likes of Hotel Transylvania 2 and The Intern will allot the same space as a movie where a guy is eaten to death by ants. No matter how The Green Inferno turned out, this is an amazing coup, especially when you consider just how much mainstream horror is sometimes in need of a jolt.
But the good news is that The Green Inferno is a pretty solid jolt to the system, if not a shock to even the most jaded, desensitized sensibilities. Time will tell if it’s on the cusp of a gore-soaked wave in the same way Cabin Fever and Hostel were, but, for now, it’s safe to say that it’s been awhile since something this unabashedly depraved and violent snuck its way into theaters. Judging it strictly on the merits of its vomitus potential, it’s staggering just how uneasy this film can be. Even as a weathered veteran of 70s and 80s exploitation, I found myself squirming and fidgeting in my chair, and I watched several passages while peeking between my fingers. To be sure, much of this stems from the film’s preoccupation with the aforementioned genital mutilation; let’s just say if I personally required trigger warnings, this would be at the top of my list. For whatever reason, this ghastly display of cruelty is something that causes me to go white at the very thought, and I have been sent fleeing from a schoolroom on more than one occasion when it was a topic of discussion.
Here’s the thing about The Green Inferno, though: its ethos might as well be “fuck trigger warnings.” It’s a film that’s been crafted with the express purpose to offend and burn away all sensibilities in a wildfire of misogyny, misanthropy, and xenophobia. In modern social media parlance, this is a very #problematic film, one that resorts to the basest, most common denominators in order to make your stomach coil itself into a position where it can clutch its own pearls. It wouldn’t be an exploitation movie if it didn’t prey on your visceral and moral sensibilities, after all. With vintage examples of the form, it’s easier to look back and realize they were produced during a less sensitive era; obviously, The Green Inferno can’t be afforded such a pass—not that it expects you to grant it one, anyway. Roth is unapologetic in his exploitation (this is why it’s called exploitation, of course) and doesn’t seem to give a good goddamn how troublesome this sort of film is 30 years after its heyday, if only because he seems to be keenly aware of it.
Of course, it’s fair to wonder aloud if simple awareness that it’s “supposed to be like this” is enough—is it okay to offend even as you’re unsubtly assuring your audience that they shouldn’t be offended, almost in the same breath? Truthfully, I don’t know how anyone could be offended by The Green Inferno, especially when it deviates into black comedy. By the time you’ve watched a girl comically shit her brains out or watch an entire tribe become high because the corpse they’ve just devoured was marinated in weed smoke, it’s much easier to see The Green Inferno for the gut-munching lark it is. Those familiar with Roth’s work will not be surprised to discover that its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek—even as it’s ripping out its cast members’ tongues in gruesome, unflinching detail. Through it all, its mission statement is barely concealed: “don’t be so offended, bro.”
Lord knows I’m fairly far removed from such a douche-bro philosophy. It’s more than fair (hell, if not mandatory) to critique legitimately offensive media that preys upon outdated stereotypes and unseemly cultural mores; however, I also find it fair to reserve such criticism for dead serious films that truly deserve it. The Green Inferno is too glib and self-aware to merit it, especially when it’s actively criticizing the very same outrage culture that would tear it apart. Like its predecessors, its message is anvil-subtle, as Roth can barely hide his disdain for the sort of hashtag activism on display here. While it must be noted that, yes, these students do at least trek into a jungle to inspire some change, their motivations feel less altruistic and more self-serving; who really cares that they’ve saved a tribe from obliteration when they’re a trending topic on Twitter? They’re a shallow bunch, easily motivated by the potential to expand their brand worldwide by a guy whose shady connections barely seem to register—until it’s too late, of course.
What The Green Inferno has to say about modern activism and outrage isn’t especially deep, but it represents a masterful blending of form and function. Audiences become complicit in the constantly-shifting allegiances as Roth continually manipulates them into realizing what a dog-eat-dog (or human-eat-human, natch) world looks like: at various points, the natives and the Peruvian militia are heroes or villains, depending on how they can help or harm the Americans. Hitchcock would likely approve the manner in which Roth has audiences constantly sympathizing with two cultures responsible for equally reprehensible behavior in unabashed, unrelenting fashion. To its black-hearted final jab, The Green Inferno remains a ridiculous exercise in trolling an audience as easily offended and called to “action” as its ill-fated characters.*
That it’s also often thrilling helps; you perhaps wish the film’s digital polish weren’t so flat—a film like The Green Inferno should be ugly, but this somehow doesn’t feel grimy enough. Likewise, its characters will never be mistaken as anything but disposable avatars (though Levy winds up playing a fine, despicable heel); the thrills, of course, come in their disposing at the hands of Nicotero and Berger, two grizzled veterans put to the task of gutting, eviscerating, and decapitating most of the cast. If Roth only traded in such cheap, visceral thrills, The Green Inferno would be a solid inheritor to the cannibal legacy; however, the director’s commitment to also articulating something amidst the carnage (however obvious it may be) makes it a sort of perfect successor.
Since bursting onto the scene with Cabin Fever, Roth has made no bones about his affection for Quentin Tarantino, and with The Green Inferno, he reminds us why he can at least stand somewhere on the outer fringes of that sort of company: he doesn’t just aim to regurgitate an old formula but rather seeks to reinvigorate it in an apt manner. Like so many films in this genre, The Green Inferno is juvenile, disgusting, and sort of reprehensible; however, like the better films in this genre, it’s also smarter and more incisive than it has any right to be.
*Leading up to the film’s release, an internet petition was launched to keep The Green Inferno from being released; this was either brilliant viral marketing or a group perfectly embodying what the film is satirizing.
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