Silver Screen: The Green Inferno **1/2
There are two ways to read the title of Eli Roth’s gory new cannibal horror flick The Green Inferno.
The green inferno in question is most obviously a reference to the lush but foreboding Peruvian jungle in which a group of college-age activists are brutally attacked by a savage indigenous tribe. But green is also the color most associated with lefty environmentalist types, so Green Inferno can also be translated as “liberal hell.” The latter interpretation is probably more apt to Roth’s blackly comedic, someone-else’s-tongue-in-your-cheek intentions. In this giddily offensive film, Roth doesn’t just thumb his nose at politically correct culture, he runs a bone through it and makes “ooga-booga” noises.
Justine (Lorenza Izzo) is in the midst of a political awakening during her freshman year of college, where she’s learning about global injustice and worldly horrors like female genital mutilation. She’s particularly drawn to hunky, brooding activist leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who has big plans to stage a social-media coup by flying a group of students to Peru to disrupt an evil company’s deforestation project. The land scheduled for capitalist desecration also happens to belong to an ancient, cartoonishly uncivilized tribe shielded from modernity by the perilous topography and dense vegetation surrounding them.
Alejandro’s scheme to dress his crew like the construction workers to slip into their camp and chain themselves to bulldozers works perfectly— that is, until the cannibalistic tribe runs across the kids and can’t tell them apart from the oppressors. The survivors of the initial calamity are herded into a wooden cage where, one by one, they are ritualistically prepared and consumed. The tribe’s matriarch, though, seems to have special, much grimmer plans for Justine.
The Green Inferno is deeply indebted to Ruggero Deodato’s controversial cult classic Cannibal Holocaust, a movie that’s somehow less subtle than its name. Deodato’s grisly, frequently appalling 1980 exploitation flick is derided for several reasons, most specifically its depiction of native culture and Deodato’s willingness to butcher live animals onscreen. It’s a deeply upsetting movie, but one that can’t be entirely dismissed. Not only did Deodato essentially invent the modern found-footage horror movie, but his grindhouse splatterfest ends with an arch twist that recontextualizes the white folks’ incursion into the jungle and ends on a strangely socially conscious note.
Roth is blatantly working off Deodato’s template, so much so that Green Inferno straddles the line between homage and remake. Whereas Deodato turns viewers’ presumably negative assumptions about the indigenous people against them, though, Roth takes the opposite tact. Here’s where that “liberal hell” comes in.
Justine’s sin is naïveté. She and her fellow student activists believe that the power of their good intentions trumps all, and their real terror— aside from, you know, being eaten— comes in realizing how complex, unjust, and brutal the world really is. Roth tastelessly drives this point home by rendering the cannibal tribe as feral and unsophisticated as possible, the exact opposite of the left-wing fantasy of bucolic bushmen whose sustainable lifestyle is disrupted by encroaching modernity.
Roth revels in the bad taste of it all. It’s tough not to admire the sheer iconoclasm, but it’s just as tough to say that Green Inferno justifies its sadism. The Green Inferno’s purpose is more clearly defined than Roth’s similarly xenophobic Hostel movies, but it’s too repugnant to recommend.
The long sequence following the students’ capture is harrowing and shows Roth’s undeniable facility with squicky horror setpieces. The brutality of the cannibalism is heightened by the casualness with which it’s presented, as though it was footage from a nature documentary.
But Roth isn’t as deft with character and dialogue. So many of his jokes fall flat, either because they’re too blunt to qualify as witty, or because they’re delivered with no sense of timing by actors who run the gamut from howlingly bad to just plain unmemorable. The prime example here is singer Sky Ferreira playing Justine’s roommate Kaycee, the movie’s ostensible conscience. Roth and collaborator Guillermo Amoedo write her as a practical, glib contrast to the touchy-feely, politically engaged students. She dismisses activism as “gay” and “retarded,” but beneath her un-P.C. language is genuine concern for her friend and a wise wariness of Alejandro, who she suspects has ulterior motives.
Yet Ferreira’s awful, stilted line readings rob her dialogue of any punch. It’s easy to imagine this character stealing the show if played by a slyer actress, like say the overqualified Greta Gerwig or a Scream-era Rose McGowan. It would take an actress that good to find the life in Roth’s dialogue, but alas, he isn’t likely to attract such talent when the threat of onscreen genital mutilation looms constantly.
Eli Roth is the mischievous kid who has trouble distinguishing between good and bad attention. The Green Inferno is the tantrum of an underachieving C-student whose genuine abilities are frustrated by his impulse to act out. You can’t help but admire the fervor and audacity of his protest... but that doesn’t mean you want to watch it, either.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.