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Writer/director Eli Roth doesn’t waste any time setting a tone in his latest horror/thriller, The Green Inferno. Two Peruvian Rain Forest natives, a grandfatherly type and a young boy are walking amid the lush green habitat of their home when the roar of a steam shovel breaks through the trees. It’s not subtle. But nothing about an Eli Roth film typically is. An homage of sorts to the now oddly sustained Italian cannibal horror films of the late 1970s and early 80s, The Green Inferno is a surprisingly effective piece of political satire aimed at face-value only activism and even the motives of young, inexperienced idealism. Or it’s just a fun gory horror film. But what’s remarkable about that quiet moment at the opening and the perception it creates is how dramatically it shifts when Roth switches the direction the story is being told from. This is a challenging film.
Justine (Lorenza Izzo), whom we just watched terrorizing Keanu Reeves in Knock Knock (though Inferno was filmed 2 years prior), gets the tables turned on her this time. After sitting in a lecture at her university about the atrocities of female genital mutilation, and being awakened by a peaceful but loud group of activists led by an attractive young man named Alejandro (Ariel Levy). She becomes intrigued by his lifestyle and quickly decides she want in on the action. She is recruited by Jonah (Aaron Burns) to join the group and despite a rocky introduction to Alejandro, agrees to leave the comfort of her campus and head to the Amazon Rainforest to halt the logging of company that is hacking down thousands of acres of trees and decimating native tribal lands. It turns out to be much more than she bargained for.
Hardcore activists, Alejandro leads the small group into a guerrilla type operation, disguised as workers of the logging company. Wearing masks, they chain themselves to the equipment and live feed on their smart phones their protest while armed security forces rush them. The military men can’t do anything about those tied to the bulldozers and back-hoes, but Justine’s padlock fails and she is pulled from a tree and held at gunpoint. Alejandro uses the incident to create a social media event, whether she dies or not. They are soon arrested and after a massive bribe is paid, put on an airplane. Unfortunately, as must happen, the engine fails and the plane goes down. So too does her trust and concern for Alejandro.
The survivors are soon captured by a native tribe of Peruvian Indians (played by actual Amazonian natives) who usher them to their village and, putting most in a makeshift cage, separate the biggest man of the group and, while still alive, lay him down, gouge out his eyes, slice off his tongue, hack off his limbs, cook him and eat him. It’s terrifying and horrific. And what’s amazing is how Roth balances the gore with a gripping sense of authenticity, as least in the sense of how “real” the village and its inhabitants are portrayed. Their systematic and routine behavior at the exercise of preparing a human body for consumption is both morbidly fascinating and chilling, especially as swarms of small children linger about smacking their lips. Strange how the innocents make a shocking moment feel almost acceptable. Of course it’s fiction and no such tribe exists, and one might argue that the entire premise wholly depicts a race of people, or representation of people, in a stereotypical light. That there are tribes in the Amazon who are reclusive and even aggressive may be an unfair comparison, but comparisons will be made.
That is surely the point though as Roth swings with a broad stroke at First World hubris and misguided political action. The characters he creates are not so much ignorant as misled. Noble at heart, though to a degree, the young people trapped in this nightmare are never dumb. In fact, it is their naivety that separates them from the typical cast of forgettable, bratty teens in this genre that truly makes this film work so well. It humanizes them. When we watch teens get hacked to pieces in standard gore horror, we care less about the character because the concentration is on the machinations of the brutality. Roth never lets the horror be the reason the story progresses. It’s why so few films like this really transcend the trappings of the genre. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is a masterpiece because we remember Sally (Marilyn Burns) even if you don’t recall her name. She is remarkable character. So too is Justine, and though Roth is certainly aiming to outdo the Italian filmmakers who inspired this film, he succeeds not because the film is a controversial bloodbath of torture and violence, even though it has plenty of that. It succeeds because the people in it matter.
There are some curiosities, particularly with a minor character at the start of the film that is more caricature than character who detracts from the weight of the beginning. Surely meant to represent a detached, selfish attitude that Roth is maybe trying to poke fun at, she only serves to annoy and weaken the early moments. So too, does an odd bit with Alejandro’s girlfriend and fellow guerrilla activist who has it in for Justine where animosity was never really established. Alejandro is also a bit of a oddity as the character becomes more cartoonish as the story progresses, which I am convinced was a directional choice meant to invoke some message. For example, at one point, among his fellow captives and the captures themselves, he openly begins to masturbate, explaining that it effectively relieves stress but I’m left wondering at just what had him aroused enough to even try.
These are very minor issues in a film that, given the violent themes and extreme graphic horrors might seem antipodal, is beautifully photographed by Antonio Quercia, with sets and locations in Peru and Chile. The vivid colors of the lush forest and even the villagers themselves are sumptuous. We can question the intent of Roth and his story and debate the message therein, but it stands as his best work to date and is a gripping, frightfully disturbing film that may not be for everyone, but one that should be seen. Be sure to stay through the end credits. It’s a great little moment.
Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Guillermo Amoedo, Eli Roth
Stars: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns