Review by Justin Goodman
Had I been around when The Green Inferno filmed at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2013, I’d likely be swept up in the roughly wholesale condemnation following Roth’s film. It’s hard to defend a director actively pursuing membership among the directors dubbed the “Splat Pack,” and whose first successful film, Hostel, more than earns its place among them. But, during April of the following year, Roth argued against the neo-colonialism others saw in the movie, stating that, “the idea that a fictional movie about a fictional tribe could somehow hurt indigenous people when gas companies are tearing these villages apart on a daily basis is absurd”; I’d mention the public acceptance of shark slaughter after the premiere of Jaws elicited in many beachgoers the terror of great white fins we still hold today. Regardless, The Green Inferno’s implications though, it stands as a middling horror movie in relation to the movies it alludes to, especially the source of its title, Cannibal Holocaust.
One of the more outrageous Italian horror films, Cannibal Holocaust is a frame narrative: NYU students go missing in the Amazon, professor treks the Amazon to find them only to learn they’re dead, watches the student’s films (titled “The Green Inferno”) as they savage the innocent jungle dwellers, all while trying to convince studio executives not to premiere the footage. In a similar capacity, in Roth’s rendition, a group of college students try to prevent the destruction of the Amazon by travelling to Peru and chaining themselves to bulldozers, live streaming the company’s on-the-ground response. Lorenza Izzo’s character, Justine, a snarky freshman who exhibits all the symptoms of a horror movie heroine— virginaland without a mother, a distant father, moral integrity symbolized in the dead mother’s necklace, and a strong pair of lungs for screaming— finagles her way into this activism through an unrealistic encounter with a fellow student, Jonah (Aaron Burns). Actually, a third of the film is spent on this hobbling plot development. Half of which is over before the activist’s plane crashes in the jungle, leaving them to be captured by the cannibals. Maybe Roth tries to replicate Deodato’s pacing in Cannibal Holocaust. Instead of Deodato’s focus on the unforeseeable, however, Roth can’t take advantage of slowness. His landscape shots are beautiful, not anticipatory.
Which is to say that The Green Inferno doesn’t veer far from typical horror movie fare. Almost nothing is outstanding or unexpected. Even the activists, led by the morally ambiguous Alejandro (telenovela figure Ariel Levy), fail to prevail over stilted interactions and the weeping wailing I’m certain is more common than blood throughout this “splatter-horror.” But, really, the message is the real intention. Roth himself defends the political and visual purpose of the film, addressing critics straightforwardly, “If anything, The Green Inferno shows the beauty of Peru…so audiences globally could feel for the jungle every time a tree gets ripped up.” And there are enough long shots, establishing shots, and cuts of the cannibals eating, drinking and (in one of the funnier moments, tricked into ingesting pot-laced flesh), laughing, in familiar ways, to defend this point. Like Cannibal Holocaust, in fact, civilization comes across as a malevolent and bespoke dictator.
Ignoring a majority of the movie, anyhow. When Roth says he shows the beauty of Peru, he means he almost entirely ignores the portrayal of the cannibals. Including the moments where the supposed tribe has domesticated animals roaming their cultivated land, practices no cannibalistic tribe would have, let alone be able to practice in the Amazon. Despite the humanistic portraiture of the cannibals, the terror of their rituals on the (still yelping) prisoners doesn’t come across as a culture clash. It’s a misunderstanding how throwing yourself in a lion cage at the zoo leads to misunderstanding. It revels in the foreignness of the priestess’ yellowed skin and half-blindness, the hulking black-painted brute’s nose ring and heady violence. The villagers may have laughed at the portrayal, as Roth claims, but, to quote Poe’s Law, “If you submit a satiric item without [context], no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.” Without context, no amount of activism can amount to anything but misunderstanding. And in place of terror of the unknown, there’s only the terror of the banal.
Honestly, this movie has been criticized beyond need for additional criticism. It’s insignificant, even with the controversy surrounding it. Roth is conscious of the absurdity of the story, filling the gaps with slapstick (one activist, dizzied by the plane crash, walks directly into the still spinning propeller) and stoner comedy. He gives us more than a truly bad horror film would, with a view of Peru that is, regardless of how vanilla, nice to see spliced between the violence of eye gouging, flesh removal, and plot twists. Meanwhile, the most dynamic characters, Justine and Alejandro, can only be appreciated with the ending in mind. Even then, it’s not worth watching the entire movie.
In stores Tuesday, January 5.