[Note: This post contains spoilers. Updated 1/23/16]
It’s tempting to dismiss Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno as little more than a horror enthusiast’s tasteless homage to the Italian cannibal films of the 1970s and 1980s, with a dollop of gleeful hippie-bashing thrown in for flavor. Like that of its antecedents, the marketing for Inferno promises grisly acts of violence perpetrated on hapless captives by an isolated, indigenous tribe. Roth’s film adds a twist of cosmic irony: Said victims are idealistic college students who originally traveled into the wilderness to “save” their captors from rapacious developers. Superficially, Inferno’s entire raison d’être is to immerse its viewers in stomach-churning cruelty, to push their tolerance for animal terror and abattoir-level gore to the breaking point. A moral scold would not even need to delve into the film’s reliance on discomfiting racial tropes—more on those later—to characterize Inferno as a nasty, exploitative feature.
Granted, Roth seems to pride himself on nasty, exploitative works. His feature debut, Cabin Fever, borrows themes and motifs from numerous sources—Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Last House on the Left, The Crazies, The Evil Dead, Outbreak—but the freak show appeal of the film stems from its (literally) skin-peeling body horror. His Hostel and Hostel: Part II duology, meanwhile, is regarded as one of the touchstones of the mid-00s “torture porn” trend in English-language horror cinema. Compared to the Rube Goldberg absurdity that came to characterize James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Saw series, the Hostels are relatively straightforward stuff. Where the seemingly endless Saws quickly lost their way in a pointlessly convoluted plot and mythology, Roth’s films stand up reasonably well as blunt, repulsive tales of survival and revenge. There’s nothing Grand Guignol about the Hostels: They are ugly, ugly films with an aesthetic that can best be described as anonymously dank. Their sophomorically transgressive character rests primarily on copious carnage, and secondarily on their blending of The Most Dangerous Game’s high concept with echoes of historical Nazi and Soviet atrocities.
At their worst, Roth’s films are little more than shallow endurance tests, wherein the characters are subjected to grueling abuses and the viewer is double-dared to keep their eyes open. The Green Inferno resembles this sort of feature initially, but it slowly reveals a brainier and more philosophically knotty side. Its significance within Roth’s small oeuvre should not be understated: Beneath the juvenile gags and grindhouse shocks, the film engages sincerely with political and moral concepts that were merely toyed with idly in the Hostels. The Green Inferno is not just Roth’s most fascinating and morally sophisticated feature to date (a low bar, admittedly). It also represents the kind of tough-minded rumination on violence that director Tom Six claims to be striving for with his vacuous Human Centipede series.
The film’s protagonist and obligatory Final Girl is Justine (Lorenza Izzo), an idealistic freshman at a New York City college. She and surly roommate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira) are awakened one morning by the chanting of campus activists, who on this particular day are campaigning for the labor rights of the college’s maintenance workers. Kaycee has only vehement contempt for such do-gooders, whom she regards as guilt-wracked poseurs, but Justine is intrigued, partly by the group’s principles and partly by their dreamy leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy). Justine has her own admirer in smitten activist Jonah (Aaron Burns), who urges her to check out the organization. However, when Justine drops in on a meeting, Alejandro rebuffs her by harshly questioning her motives and dedication. He later walks back his misgivings, however, offering Justine a place in the group’s upcoming trip to the Peruvian Amazon. The goal of this expedition is purportedly to protest a natural gas development that is threatening a nameless indigenous tribe. Alejandro warns that these rainforest people will likely be hunted down and murdered by corporate mercenaries, all for daring to resist the tacitly government-approved theft of their lands.
Justine agrees to join the cause, disregarding the advice of her roommate and her father (Richard Burgi), a prominent attorney affiliated with the United Nations. Soon Justine is stepping out into the blazing heat of tropical South America with a gaggle of fellow activists. These starry-eyed global citizens are mostly anonymous background props, but a few are named and distinguished by a single trait: pothead Lars (Daryl Sabara), bad girl Samantha (Magda Apanowicz), and so forth. As the group travels through towns and then upriver to the leading edge of the gas company’s swath of destruction, Alejandro elucidates his plan for direct action. Disguising themselves in the corporation’s jumpsuits and hardhats, the activists will surreptitiously chain themselves to trees in the construction area. Hacking into the company’s satellite communications, they will then use their smartphones to stream their protest to the world as it happens.
Alejandro claims that the presence of a live video feed will dissuade the security forces from making any rash moves against them. In reality, things go south quickly: Alejandro’s green-eyed girlfriend Kara (Ignacia Allamand) secretly gives Justine a defective padlock, allowing the mercenaries to quickly unchain her. One on these soldiers-of-fortune then put a pistol to the terrified young woman’s head and seems prepared to summarily execute her—until Alejandro smugly reveals Justine’s familial connection to the U.N. The protest thereafter ends almost as quickly as it began. The activists are detained, turned over to Peruvian police, and packed onto a puddle-jumper plane to fly them out of the region. Alejandro and the others are ecstatic about the exposure that the protest has gleaned (“We’re blowing up Twitter!”), but Justine is understandably angry at being used as a human shield. She doesn’t have long to ruminate on her feelings of betrayal, however: Shortly after takeoff, the plane’s engine suddenly explodes, sending the aircraft plummeting into a crash landing deep in the rainforest.
There’s no getting around the fact that, prior to the plane accident, The Green Inferno is a tiresome, faintly obnoxious film. Its palpable eagerness to get to the cannibalism results in a first act that uncertainly juggles elements of a travelogue, Third World thriller, campus melodrama, and repellently “edgy” comedy. Several aspects of the screenplay are downright unpleasant, from the way that Alejandro’s self-satisfied dickishness is presented as charming, to the sheer venomousness of Kaycee’s disdain for the very notion of progressive activism. Roth’s dialog has a mannered tackiness that might have been salvageable by the right actors, but The Green Inferno’s D-list cast simply isn’t up to the challenge.
Still, the ham-fisted writing and acting are occasionally redeemed by an unexpected twist on a stock situation. A prominent example is a Chekov’s gun scenario in which an anxious Lars gingerly takes a loaded pistol ashore for protection during a bathroom break. When the film throws in an enormous tarantula, the viewer is primed to expect a fatal mishap. Instead, Lars simply shoots the poor arachnid several times and runs back to the boats in a panic. This transforms a moment of R-rated Scooby-Doo hokeyness into a withering aside on American overreaction to trifling threats. It also echoes Chef’s encounter with a tiger while mango-gathering in Apocalypse Now, one of several situational and thematic allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film that Roth drizzles into his feature.
The Green Inferno finds its footing once the activists’ plane plummets out of the sky. It’s not that the slimy dialog or the plastic performances improve substantially—they don’t—but that Roth is plainly much more comfortable with the tangible darkness of blood and gristle. It helps, certainly, that the narrative’s sudden left turn into a twisted National Geographic nightmare permits the filmmaker to play in a genre sandbox he clearly admires. As the aircraft dips below the tree line and the fuselage rips asunder, sending passengers hurtling out to certain death, it’s all too easy to envision Roth rubbing his hands with relish, muttering, “Okay, now the real fun begins…”
Naturally, Justine and the seven other named activists are the only passengers to survive the crash, and their situation quickly turns from bad to worse. Drugged by blow darts fired from the dense foliage, they are abducted by a band of indigenous hunters and taken further upriver in canoes. Led by a fearsome bald warrior (Ramón llao) who is covered from head to toe in black pigment, the party soon arrives at a riverside village. The tribe that dwells there—identified much later as the fictitious Yagé people—speaks no English, but it’s clear that they aren’t interested in discussion, any more than they would parley with the peccary piglets that trot about underfoot. Upon arrival, the terrified captives are scrutinized by a sinister Matriarch (Antonieta Pari) who has one milky blind eye and skin painted a hideous jaundice hue. The activists are then herded into cages, save for poor, oblivious Jonah, who is singled out for a horrendous fate that leaves no doubt as to the Yagé’s intentions.
Some narrative back and forth aside, the remainder of the The Green Inferno consists primarily of one extended sequence of imprisonment. Far from slowing the proceedings down, the activists’ capture is the point at which the film truly picks up steam. Given that this is a Roth joint, it goes without saying that the film’s bloody practical effects are as nauseatingly peerless as the CGI is laughably phony. However, as pure horror cinema, Inferno is surprisingly slow-burn in character. As the captives are plucked out one by one to satisfy the Yagé’s hunger and the Matriarch’s murky ritual needs, a cold-sweat torment settles over the story. Roth excels at utilizing the activists’ situation to create gut-twisting dread. While it quickly becomes apparent that they have little hope of escape, the grisly details remain unclear until the actual moment of agony arrives. Lacking a shared language with their captors, Justine and the rest are left to contemplate all the horrific possibilities as they watch the Yagé sharpen hooked bone knives and tend the embers in a voluminous claystone oven. Indeed, while each captive is subjected to a fresh flavor of suffering—the activist who is hobbled, staked, and baited to lure swarms of stinging army ants actually gets off easy—the stretches of time spent stewing in the cage are somehow more agonizing that the most gruesome evisceration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the appearance of the village is where the ghastly design of The Green Inferno shines. The production design team, overseen by Marichi Palacios, is plainly aiming to approximate the look of the apexes of the cannibal film subgenre, Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust. The village’s structures appear to be those of an indigenous Amazonian people, but the film overlays the environs with a slathering of gore. Human bones ornament every nook and cranny, and rotting heads top the village’s wooden palisades. There are no carefully maintained midden heaps, just bones and bits of viscera strewn about like detritus, while flies and clotted blood cling to seemingly everything. The entire settlement has a repellent vermillion cast, as though untold quantities of blood had soaked into every fragment of wood and stone. What’s more, most of the Yagé wear a cinnabar pigment that matches their gruesome surroundings. Not incidentally, this permits the yellow Matriarch and her ebon enforcer to stand out from the other villagers in the film's wide shots. It also contributes to one of the most stunning images in the film: the captured activists in their fluorescent yellow jumpsuits, surrounded by a surging sea of scarlet bodies.
While Inferno presupposes a familiarity with racist colonial fairy tales about savage cannibals skulking in the world’s equatorial regions, whether or not the film sustains and reinforces such myths for a contemporary audience is difficult to say. Certainly, it is discomfiting that there are barely any indigenous peoples depicted who are not cannibals. While it seems disingenuous to argue that Roth should have made a nuanced ethnographic study out of his horror film, the mere decision to make a cannibal feature in 2015 seems, at the very least, irresponsible. There’s something a little distasteful and (dare one say it?) privileged about a white director going out of his way to keep the myth of the feral jungle anthropophage alive in the public’s imagination. Roth previously defended his depiction of Slovakia in Hostel by comparisons to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, asserting that no reasonable viewer would glean from the latter film that all white rural Texans are serial killers. However, this retort is less salient to The Green Inferno. Context matters: The race-based colonial history of South America renders the politics of the white-authored The Green Inferno distinct from those of standard slasher fare. (Now, a cannibal horror film made by an indigenous South American director? That would be something to see.)
For this viewer, the most repugnant aspect of the film is its use of female genital mutilation as a threat against a captive white woman. Shoehorning the predominantly northeast African practice of FGM into a story about indigenous Amazonians betrays Roth’s willingness to substitute reality with racist fiction if it titillates. (“Primitive brown people do this, right? Let’s throw it in there.”) Quite apart for the racial angle, however, it’s a move that at once trivializes a genuinely horrific issue while also finding a way to backhandedly dehumanize millions of FGM survivors. Obliged to dream up the most appalling fate imaginable for an American woman, Roth went right to the disfigurement of her sex.
As important as it is to acknowledge and criticize the fundamental recklessness of The Green Inferno, it’s also vital to address how the film actually portrays its indigenous bogeymen. Far from serving as proxies for real-world Amazonian tribes, the Yagé are presented as stewards of a culture that has gone monstrously askew, deformed by contact with a ravenous global corporate empire. Like Colonel Kurtz’s patchwork tribe of Cambodian forest people and AWOL Americans in Apocalypse Now, or the degenerated Austronesian culture of Skull Island in King Kong, the tribe of The Green Inferno is not a Stone Age remnant, but a reactive mutation. (Similar to Kurtz’s clan, they revel in gore, something few real-world hunter-gatherer societies would contemplate, given the diseases it would invite.) The activists are no innocents ensnared by devils, but naïve fools caught in the crossfire of a shifting economic and cultural conflict. Underlining the point, one activist observes that it is their gas company disguises that doomed them once they fell into the Yagé’s clutches: “They think we’re the enemy.”
Ultimately, the script by Roth and Uruguayan filmmaker Guillermo Amoedo approaches every faction—native, activist, corporate, governmental—with an acidly skeptical eye. Cannibal Holocaust might have been a significant influence on The Green Inferno, but Roth’s feature contains neither the older film’s then-innovative found footage conceit nor its accusatory jabs at the viewer for gobbling up depictions of sensationalistic violence. This makes the new film a much less audacious work, but also evades the hypocrisies that cling to Cannibal Holocaust. Roth and Amoedo are more interested in undermining the viewer’s faith in an abundance of institutions and movements. Often, the screenplay flirts with a cheapjack species of omni-directional South Park-style cynicism, with a corresponding penchant for sneering at liberal activist strawmen.
That said, the film’s swipes at activist Norteamericanos are often pointed. While they talk a good human rights game, most of the activists are motivated by less altruistic concerns, and for some the Peruvian protest is plainly a glorified vacation. (Given that she is the Final Girl, guileless but kind-hearted Justine is the exception.) Their ballyhooed direct action amounts to little more than a weekend stunt to rake in social media attention. Even prior to their abduction, the activists’ concern for the Yagé seems paper-thin. Paradoxically, there’s a kind of quasi-colonial tone to Alejandro’s scheme: swoop into a foreign country, extract some resources (Twitter mentions), and then return home while cracking open beers and back-slapping each other for bravery. Tellingly, none of the campus do-gooders bother to learn anything about the people they claim to be defending, and once in Peru their sympathies seem to shift to the forest ecosystem rather than its inhabitants. (One added knife-twist to the activists’ unfortunate situation is that knowledge of even a few words in the Yagé tongue might have saved them.)
Such disregard is consistent with the sanitized “rainforest chic” that peaked in liberal circles in the 1990s but still lingers on. It's an ostensibly green mindset that fetishizes the flora and fauna of the equatorial world while erasing its indigenous human inhabitants. Indeed, the fallacious bifurcation of the physical world into “nature” and “humans” is a theme that emerges from almost all stories about cannibalism, The Green Inferno included. Disgust-based social taboos are often predicated on artificial categories, after all. To both the animistic hunter-gatherer and the post-Darwin rationalist, humankind is indivisible from the natural world. Meat is meat.
Initially, it appears that The Green Inferno might be aiming for a facile, “plague upon both your houses” nihilism that plays to the vanity of the armchair curmudgeon. The worldview that the film eventually settles upon, however, is more reflective, akin to a broad sociological pessimism. The Green Inferno sees no nobility in humankind, just competing claims on property and lives that can only be effectively resolved through warfare between political entities. It’s a vision that, weirdly enough, echoes the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his opus Leviathan, absent the fussy Christian sectarianism that preoccupied much of the seventeenth-century Englishman’s writing.
Hobbes described the natural condition of humanity as one of anarchic violence, where thievery, rape, and murder prevail. In such a state, civilization would not be possible, and every moment would be characterized by unremitting fear and peril. Human life would be, as he memorably described it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” a “war of all against all.” Hobbes believed that humankind could only ascend out of this state by organizing into social groups under democratic, aristocratic, or (ideally) monarchial leadership. To achieve harmony, our species must abdicate its natural freedom for a muscular government, preferably one invested with absolute power.
At first glance, one might assume that the Yagé of The Green Inferno embody the vicious, atavistic state that Hobbes posited as the factory mode of our species. Unquestionably, a cannibal presents a vivid contrast with the sentimental conception of the “noble savage”—even though they are actually complementary caricatures on the same racist coin. However, a moment's consideration reveals that the Yagé lead an existence that bears little resemblance to Hobbes’ conception of the primeval condition. While the tribe is engaged in a brutal war with the world beyond their village—most conspicuously with the corporation that aims to seize their land—their attitude towards one another appears to be peaceful. There is no significant evidence of intra-tribal violence in the film, and under the unconditional rule of the village Matriarch, in-group harmony appears to be the rule. Indeed, the ritualized acts of cannibalism that consume the luckless activists serve as a social glue for the Yagé, providing opportunities for religious devotion and village-wide socialization. Revealingly, The Green Inferno lingers on banal scenes which could have been plucked from a documentary on indigenous peoples: village women talking and laughing blithely as they chop tubers and salt freshly slaughtered cuts of “long pork.”
The solitary cannibal might be a murderous savage, but a village of cannibals is a polity, albeit one with traditions that put it in inherent conflict with all outsiders (who, as a rule, prefer not to be eaten). Hobbes used the term Leviathan to refer to a powerful European nation with imperial ambitions, but the word could easily be extended to any organized group of people that asserts its political sovereignty. The Yagé certainly fit the bill, as they do not appear to acknowledge the authority of either the Peruvian government or its grasping corporate allies. Under Hobbes’ formulation, anything a Leviathan does to protect the wealth and lives of its people is de facto ethical—presumably, up to and including cannibalism. (Nourishment, intimidation, and social cohesion: It's win-win, really.) While The Green Inferno drapes the Yagé in a kind of bestial exoticism, there is little suggestion that they are intrinsically evil. Their consumption of human flesh is, rather, an adaptation to extraordinary circumstances in which their nemeses give no quarter. The gas company might be fighting over wealth, but the Yagé are battling for their very existence. In such a scenario, the most shocking sorts of asymmetric warfare are not only permissible, but mandatory, at least according to Hobbes. For the Matriarch to not gouge out a captive's eyes and gobble them up would void the social contract with her tribe, resulting in the forfeiture of her position. In its roundabout way, Roth's film seems to advocate that fearsome shibboleth of American reactionaries, "moral relativism".
What emerges from The Green Inferno is therefore a decidedly grim vision: a world locked in ruthless conflict, with each self-styled Leviathan forced to adopt ever-more ruthless tactics. Underlining the point, Justine eventually extricates herself from the grasp of cannibals and soldiers-of-fortune alike by slipping through the gaps in their otherwise monolithic societies. While in the thrall of the Yagé, she coerces a village child to contravene the Matriarch’s wishes and set her free by appealing to a shared love of aesthetic beauty. She then stares down the corporation's mercenaries by threatening to stream her own execution live on a recovered smartphone, thus subjecting their paymasters to an embarrassing international incident. (A bitter twist: This was, of course, Alejandro’s original plan.) These imperfections in otherwise comprehensive systems of control are fortuitous for Justine, but the film hardly presents them as hopeful glimmers. Her escape is an isolated, exceptional event on a global battlefield in which escalation among numerous Leviathans is the norm. Indeed, The Green Inferno points to bleak but eerily plausible future in which a vast majority of the world’s population is subject to the rule of a “mega-Leviathan”: a hydra of collaborating authoritarian nations-states united under a capitalist ideology. In such conditions, “nano-Leviathans” such as holdout indigenous tribes, religious separatists, anti-government guerrillas, and other nominally sovereign partisans would be forced to adopt increasingly beyond-the-pale methods. When the alternative is annihilation, the choice to eat one’s enemy becomes no choice at all.