Activists on a Plate: "Green Inferno" doesn't shrink away from gore but lacks a reason to care
The Green Inferno (2015)
100 min., rated R.
"The Green Inferno," extreme horror practitioner Eli Roth's fourth film, has surely endured a bumpy trip to theaters. Shot back in 2012, premiering at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and then scheduled to be released in the U.S. in 2014, the film was then pulled from distribution a month before its original release due to financial difficulties. A year later, it's finally being unleashed upon the public as the inaugural release under producer Jason Blum's platform arm BH Tilt, but was all the hold-up worth it? Those who are easily squeamish and have a beef with Roth's speciality in the vicious slaughter of xenophobic travelers (2003's "Cabin Fever," 2006's "Hostel" and 2007's "Hostel: Part II") will already know his "new" film isn't for them, and it wasn't really made for them anyway. Still, as a supporter of Roth who knows what he's getting into and can say his extremely violent films are worth more than the disparaging label of "torture porn," there is no denying that "The Green Inferno" is the filmmaker's first time being off the mark. What deserved to be Roth's relentlessly feverish magnum opus of terror is actually his worst directorial effort.
Idealistic Columbia freshman Justine (Lorenza Izzo), the daughter of a U.N. lawyer (Richard Burgi), feels the need to stand for something and make a difference. Coaxed into the activist group on campus by the affably plump Jonah (Aaron Burns) and charismatic but heartless and sanctimonious leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), she joins the group in taking a plane to the Peruvian jungle to save the rainforest. There, the team—among them, Alejandro's jealous girlfriend Kara (Ignacia Allamand), tattooed lesbian Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) and anxious vegan girlfriend Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton), pothead Lars (Daryl Sabara), and a Chilean guy named Daniel (Nicolás Martínez)—chains themselves to the bulldozers for a deforestation project that threatens the Amazon's native tribe and films the whole scene on their phones for viral attention. Once the protest nearly gets them killed and then handcuffed by the guards, a frightening incident that leaves Justine disillusioned and clear-eyed, they head back home on a celebratory flight, but engine failure causes the plane to crash. Though there are a few fatalities, the survivors are captured and imprisoned in a bamboo cage by the indigenous tribe. Wearing the same yellow jumpsuits as the loggers, the would-be activists look like the enemy and will have to try real hard to escape before becoming the tribe's barbecue.
Intended to revive the cannibal splatter subgenre and be a homage to the granddaddy, Ruggero Deodato's Italian punisher "Cannibal Holocaust" (1980), "The Green Inferno" is, by design, as unpleasant, grueling, and exploitative as it should be as a wholeheartedly visceral experience. For their script, Eli Roth and co-writer Guillermo Amoedo (2013's "Aftershock" and Roth's upcoming "Knock Knock") have the bones of a pointed comment on "slacktivism"—a term derisively used against millennials who irresponsibly use social media to get credit for supporting an issue without any actual effort—and a devilishly ironic cautionary tale about a clash of cultures—American activists getting killed and/or eaten by the same tribe they thought they were protecting—but the execution is slathered in contempt and tonally misjudged. Before eyes are gouged out, tongues are cut out, and both are feasted on, the opening 30 minutes are practically worthless and tedious with awkward, on-the-nose dialogue and perfunctory writing that fails to create characters worth caring about. The film would be more of an upsetting, genuinely horrific experience had Roth not asked viewers to cheer on the punishing fates of his annoying nitwits but to actually fear for them. In a skewed way, the aboriginal people are the heroes and the one-note "do-gooders" are just their dinner, but it's still hard to give a damn who lives and who dies. Continually, Roth sells himself short by undercutting the power of the horror with juvenile attempts at gag humor involving cathartic masturbation and explosive diarrhea that have no place here. Even the infighting between the collegians doesn't work because most of them are insufferable jerks who can't be eaten quick enough.
If anything, "The Green Inferno" is a director's movie all the way. Eli Roth rebelliously brings it and pushes limits most mainstream horror features do not, and if there is any real accomplishment, it's the on-location shooting in South America with a real Peruvian tribe. Never one to timidly shrink away from unblinking carnage, Roth still shoots the violence with a brutal confidence and doesn't always cut too soon (sometimes not soon enough that one feels the MPAA might just have a high threshold for gore, or their entire system is just bogus). The plane crash that gets the activist team back into the jungle is realistically staged and legitimately distressing, like a shot of adrenaline. After each survivor is snatched up and "greeted" by the tribesmen, tribeswomen and children covered in red paint, there is a jittery apprehension in seeing the bug-eyed, disoriented activists being pawed and pulled along, as well as the hysterical Amy's long blond hair shedding in a sea of villagers. The first kill at the hands of a pierced, white-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow-lookalike elder (Antonieta Pari) might be the harshest and most effective, evoking wincing and mouth-covering disgust (thanks to Gregory Nicotero's gnarly gore effects), and when the activist gang's "'Scooby-Doo' plan" in giving the tribe a recreational high (don't ask) backfires, a munchies feast is the most tongue-in-cheek. Then again, an escape sequence where Justine gets away, foolishly takes one wrong step and nearly drowns down a muddy river is treated so quickly that it feels like a non-event. Unfortunately, the performances Roth gets out of his actors do not help and run the gamut from merely competent to stilted and amateurish. From the first time pop singer Sky Ferreira comes on screen, one hopes her inauspicious acting debut as Justine's sneering, vampiric roomie Kaycee will be her swan song, too. A better film hopefully awaits Kirby Bliss Blanton (2012's "Project X"), who can scream bloody murder like a champ, but only Lorenza Izzo (Eli Roth's real-life wife) reaches believable emotional heights with a battered vulnerability as Justine, the virginal final girl who might be the only well-intentioned character with any rooting interest.
Despite a little social context that bookends "The Green Inferno," nothing else seems to matter. What's left is an endurance test with a cynical punchline out of a shaggy-dog story. At a stop-and-start pace, the viewer is forced to watch each member become a piece of supper meat, or be fed to CG ants, or be prepared for a genital mutilation ceremony, and this is not even writer-director Eli Roth's grisliest and most uncompromising piece of work. Roth may never make a movie for general audiences, and hats off to him for always making the movie he wants to make and making it as horrific as he wants to within reason. Calling "The Green Inferno" vile, repulsive, and merciless would be loving compliments to Roth—it apparently caused a screening audience member to faint at the Deauville American Film Festival in France—but none of the fundamental elements that make a horrific experience impactful come out to play. Never quite as gripping, scary, or shocking as a cannibalistic horror film could and should be, it's just flippant blood and guts but no brains and very little reason to care.