The Green Inferno
Directed by Eli Roth
Opens September 25
Over eight years have elapsed between the release of Eli Roth’s last film as a director, Hostel: Part II, and his newest, The Green Inferno. Some of that lag can be chalked up to a financial snafu that delayed its release date a year, for a total of two years after its 2013 Toronto Film Festival premiere, and Roth’s follow-up, Knock Knock, will arrive in just a few weeks. But even September 2013 marked over six years since the Hostel sequel, and finally getting a look at Inferno makes me wonder if Roth wasn’t spending that time in sort of a Quentin Tarantino phase. Not dabbling in historical revisionism or westerns, not indulging expansive running times—think back further, to those years between Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, or between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, or around the time he and Robert Rodriguez were giving Grindhouse their all. I’m thinking of the times where Tarantino takes time off to hang out with his filmmaker buddies, guest star (or guest-direct) on TV, “present” other people’s movies, or act in movies he didn’t direct.
Roth seems to have tried all of that over the past half-decade or so, including a role in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (only in Tarantino’s universe could Eli Roth fill a role once offered to global superstar Adam Sandler). And more power to him; who wouldn’t want to be in Basterds, given the chance? But he’s come back rusty, or at least he did back in 2013: I like the Hostel movies, and The Green Inferno plays how I’ve heard them described: by turns smug, sour, and disgusting.
Inferno isn’t all of that at once, but it hits those notes as clearly as Roth’s previous films raced through invocations of dread, sick jokes, and propulsive thrillers. That’s the path Hostel takes and Inferno imitates: both have long set-ups where a group of young people semi-blunder their way through a foreign locale, only to eventually find themselves in way (and horrifically) over their heads. The Green Inferno follows Columbia freshmen Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife) as she attempts to join a group of campus activists led by the creepily intense and self-serious Alejandro (Ariel Levy). She hooks up with the group just as they’re about to embark on a mission to protest the destruction of an Amazonian tribe which, naturally, goes horribly wrong. Less naturally, the wrongness involves Justine, Alejandro, and several of their friends trapped by natives who mistake them for developers and, moreover, have a unique ritual prepared to make their enemies disappear.
At the time, I thought the Hostel movies were satirizing Americans’ tendency toward both spring-break debauchery and xenophobic paranoia with nasty relish. Now I’m not so sure; now I’m wondering if Roth really might think the world outside the US is a nasty place, and turns those fears into an equally nasty series of jokes. At first, those jokes are on campus activism—a worthy target that Roth all but sneers at, treating the activism group with Parker/Stone levels of contempt. At least South Park often musters some funny jokes in between the strident nihilism, and sometimes endeavors to expose actual hypocrisy; Inferno is probably Roth’s least funny film, and most disdainful, without really pinpointing why youthful activists can be irritatingly self-righteous; Alejandro is just ridiculous for caring about something, before revealing a duplicity that doesn’t say much besides “Alejandro is a really lousy person.” It’s easy to imagine Sky Ferreira (looking a bit like a surly Prairie Dawn in a supporting role as Justine’s roommate) as a quasi-ironic mouthpiece for the filmmaker with lines like “activism is so fucking gay.”
One saving grace is Izzo’s Justine, whom the movie only lightly mocks for her naïveté, and who provides a wide-eyed and likable entry point to the mayhem that eventually ensues. Said mayhem—and, ok, if you know anything about this movie, you probably know that it involves cannibalism—shows off Roth’s gorehound commitment, but little else. Unlike the smooth progression from set-up to horrific trap to rallying escape in Hostel, Green Inferno splatters blood haphazardly, more eager to flay its (very attractive) ugly Americans than explain what makes them so ugly. In both its cheap shocks and cheap digital-video texture (could it be that Roth’s other movies only look good because he shot them on film?! It seems unlikely), the movie very much resembles Aftershock, a movie based on horrible events that followed a real earthquake in Chile that Roth worked on (as an actor, co-writer, and producer). It played like a Hostel knockoff, and now this movie, which employs many members of the Aftershock cast and crew, plays like a companion piece to that total piece of shit. It’s terrific to see so many Latino names in the credits list, but it’s hard to feel like Roth has been inspired by his new-ish collaborators when he uses them to mount a lame imitation of his older movies (as well as, probably, Cannibal Holocaust, a seminal cannibal horror film Roth has cited as an inspiration, unseen by me). And depressing to consider how and why a movie filmed on location in Peru and Chile can look so much crummier than a series of movies set and shot in desolate Eastern Europe.
Once in a while, Inferno‘s tone shifts stumble into something clever, or at least novel. A cut from one victim screaming through, essentially, being eaten alive to the natives calmly preparing his remains without any particular ceremony as if chatting over a casual family dinner is vintage Roth, cranking up the horror before undercutting it with a sense of the mundane (which turns horrific again in a matter of moments). Really, this movie should be a lot duller than it is. But Roth manages only fleeting moments of suspense, because the characters are made so powerless for so long, punished for caring about the world (Justine also makes a late-movie decision that I still don’t really understand, and fear Roth intends as the cherry on his delicious satire sundae). Recall that Tarantino’s extracurricular buddy movies like From Dusk Till Dawn manage to provide actual genre thrills. Recall also that I’ve mentioned Hostel and Tarantino a lot, so how about this: The Green Inferno also feels a little like one of Kevin Smith’s late-period horror movies: a scary statement movie that sounds more like stoner blathering.