Eli Roth’s last feature film as a director (he’s done a lot of producing and acting in the interim) was 2007’s Hostel: Part II, which continued the xenophobic exploration of a few sketchy Eastern European vacation spots that he had visited two years earlier with the original Hostel. We can report that his sort-of new (it’s been on the shelf for two years due to distribution problems) directorial effort, The Green Inferno, carries his cinematic terror of foreign cultures and lands one step further: now you just don’t get slaughtered in horrible ways if you’re merely a tourist, you also get torn to pieces if you’re actually trying to do something worthwhile while in country.
In Roth’s universe, staying home is still your best option.
But staying put is the last thing that NYU student Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife in real life and star of Aftershock) wants to do. The daughter of a UN lawyer, she joins a group of activists who plan to travel to the Amazon and stop the corporate deforestation going on there in order to protect the region’s indigenous tribes. But Justine’s motivations are questioned every inch of the way – by her roommate (Sky Ferreira) who is, like, so over activism, and by Kara (Ignazia Allamand), one of the group’s leaders. The latter also wonders whether Justine is truly committed to the cause or just getting a bit hot for Kara’s boyfriend, and the group’s charismatic leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy).
Either way, they’re off, and the mission comes off fairly successfully despite the threat of violence from the security goons guarding the deforestation. But things take a turn for the worst when the group’s small plane crashes in the jungle on the way back, and the survivors are taken captive by a frightening-looking local tribe – some of the very people that the activists were there to allegedly protect. The tribespeople, who are of course cannibals, only know that they’ve just stumbled upon a supply of fresh, juicy food and make preparations accordingly.
The Green Inferno is, as you might guess, Roth’s homage to the horror subgenre known as the Italian cannibal movie, which began in 1972 with Umberto Lenzi’s The Man from Deep River and reached its peak in 1980 with Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (the genre gasped its last around 1988 with the obscure Cannibal Holocaust II, also known as The Green Inferno).
The template for most of these films is the same one that Roth has applied to his picture: a group of naïve/inexperienced/arrogant assholes from the civilized world ventures into the jungle and gets massacred and/or eaten by the locals. The films are brutal and usually quite ugly to watch; they’re best known for their stomach-churning gore, the latter of which Roth delivers in spades.
But he wants to have it both ways and tries to make The Green Inferno both an exploitative gutmuncher and a barbed commentary on whether activism for its own sake is a good idea, especially when the activists’ own motivations are murky or confused. Once the group is captured, ideals are quickly thrown out the window. Alejandro is shown to be a much more unpleasant person than anyone realized with secrets of his own, and he’s glad to see that the first of their team to be eaten is the heavyset Jonah (Aaron Burns); his reasoning is that Jonah will provide enough food that the rest of the survivors will have some more time before being thrown in the smoker.
That nasty observation might have more power if a) Levy was a better actor and b) there was a counterweight to his revealed unlikability. The first problem is that the acting in the movie across the board is pretty terrible; Izzo is very attractive and a good screamer (and very game for what her husband puts her through), but her range of expression begins and ends with how much she can widen her already large eyes.
None of the others are much better, but it almost doesn’t matter: the second and bigger issue is that everyone in The Green Inferno is either clueless, cynical, or monstrous. So, any attempt at making some sort of point is lost in nihilism. That’s also where Roth deploys his xenophobic tendencies: the tribespeople are simply terrifying. There might have been a throwaway line somewhere about retribution for what is being done to their homeland, but it doesn’t resonate enough to make the cannibals anything but stock boogeymen.
In the end, you get the impression that Roth doesn’t care enough about any of this and just wants to get to the good stuff, and on that front The Green Inferno is most successful. The plane crash, with the camera pointed into the cabin as it whirls around and begins to break apart, is expertly staged and quite effective while the later scenes of mutilation, disembowelment, and cannibalism are well worth the money for anyone who misses the days of watching Cannibal Ferox.
Jonah’s death lasts the longest and is the most sickening, as his eyes are popped out like grapes by the tribe’s female elder and his limbs are hacked off one by one, with him alive and screaming in agony for a large portion of it. The rest of the movie’s splatter and violence never lets up; the savagery is unrelenting and in its own unsavory way gripping (and also quite realistically achieved thanks to the use of practical makeup effects).
But The Green Inferno turns out to be less than the sum of its parts in many ways. The social commentary is never fleshed out enough to make the later horrors truly resonate, the “civilized” cast is far worse at selling the story than the tribespeople themselves, and the genuinely rich colors and compositions that Roth and cinematographer Antonio Quercia pull off in the Amazon are offset by the cheapness and blandness of the scenes back home.
It’s almost as if Roth came up with a recipe for a modern take on the Italian cannibal genre but didn’t cook it all the way through. What he serves up is not quite inedible, but it’s hardly the meal it could have been.
The Green Inferno is out in theaters Friday (Sept. 25).