There are without doubt many reasons to repudiate The Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s new film about a cannibalistic Amazonian tribe that makes more than eye candy out of a clutch of young, attractive, white college students. I think that one could reasonably claim that the representations within the film are racist. The film features much gory human butchery and more partaking of “the other white meat” than The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Alive, and Eating Raoul combined. Indeed, as anyone who is familiar with both Mr. Roth and the genre of cannibal films instantly recognizes, this film is an homage to Ruggero Deodato’s indelible and notorious 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust (the working title of which was, in fact, Green Inferno). And without doubt, Mr. Roth’s contribution falls far short, both in terms of power, and in terms of queasy exploitation, of that earlier title. And yet… there is something going on here. Do not be alarmed, my fellow cinephiles, when I ask you to lend me your ears, for I am indeed here to bury The Green Inferno, and not to praise it. Still, although the film deals in racist imagery, and is not making a cogent or self-aware critique, it does reflect something other than the disavowed inferiority, the desire to other strange cultures, and the unmitigated disgust of difference that forms the bedrock of true racism. For this film is not about people, but images; it does not even reach the threshold of having a relationship with reality. This is not to say that Mr. Roth knows what he is doing, nor is it an attempt to excuse or elide content which many will find repugnant. It is, instead, an attempt to understand why the film, for all its purportedly stomach-churning and repulsive imagery, is a strangely anodyne experience. For if many films, Cannibal Holocaust among them, concern themselves with the horrors of humans becoming images (call it objectification if you like, but it is, to my mind, a process more haunting and tragic than what that term implies), The Green Inferno concerns itself with images, pure and simple. Or, impure and slightly less simple.
In a move with echoes of Sade, the film opens and closes with our heroine, a young woman and upper-class college student named Justine (Lorenza Izzo), as she moves from innocence to “experience.” This seeming naif, primed for corruption (as any good cinephile can tell from the very first scene, as she rouses from her slumber underneath a poster for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 37.2 Le Matin, commonly known as Betty Blue), is the daughter of a U.N. ambassador, and an idealist who wants to make a difference. In reaction to her cynical (yet wise?) roommate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), who mocks all things authentic, Justine is fascinated by the hunger strikers on campus who are agitating for social justice. Radicalized by classroom representations of female circumcision, and then drawn into the group of protesters by the equally idealistic Jonah (Aaron Burns), who also has a crush on her, Justine quickly embarks with them on a mission to the rain forests of Peru, in an attempt to stop an oil company from despoiling the land and destroying the native populations in its quest to exploit hidden resources. The plan is to put themselves on the front line of the deforestation, chain themselves to trees, and then use their cell phones as weapons, broadcasting outrage directly to the rest of the planet via a phalanx of social media followers, to shame the exploiters into quitting their project. And the plan seemingly works. Soon the group is on a plane out of there, celebrating their victory – or, almost everyone is. Justine is understandably bitter that the leader of the group, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), exploited her ambassador Dad, while putting her life at risk during the operation, to make sure it was a success. There is little time for her to parse the realpolitik behind these revolutionary exploits, however, as the small plane’s engine explodes over the deep jungle, and soon it is rocketing to the ground, breaking apart as it does, and leaving half the group, and all of the crew, definitively dead. The small group of survivors is quickly set upon by the local natives; it doesn’t help that everyone in the airplane is still wearing their oil company camouflage jumpsuits. The natives, mistaking them for the enemy (or maybe just looking for a solid month’s worth of eating), quickly blow-darts our group into submission, and when they awake, they are being led through the native village and into a guarded cage. Jonah, being the biggest and meatiest, is the first to go to the butcher block, but it is understood that everyone will meet a similar fate in good time. The girls are quickly pulled out and examined for signs of virginity; only Justine passes the test (of course). She is thus singled out, and saved for last, as she will be forced to undergo the procedure that also radicalized her (oh, the irony). While in the cell, the group discovers that Alejandro is not the fellow traveler they thought, but instead either a very misguided, cynical leftist, or a complete psycho. After giving a nice speech about how 9/11 was allowed to happen by the U.S. government (although the moon landing was real, I guess), he reveals that the jungle stunt he orchestrated was at the behest of a rival oil company, looking to discredit the original one just long enough to jump their claim. No worries, says Alejandro, this is just the way business is done if you want to really affect change, and further, sit tight! That rival company is on its way, and they will soon arrive and slaughter all these horrible natives, saving our skins. (Needless to say, his comrades are nonplussed to the extreme). Not content to sit tight, everyone tries to escape at various points (save one gentle youth who slits her own throat with broken pottery), and pretty much everyone dies in their attempts. By the end, only Alejandro and Justine are left, beauty and the beast in a cell, waiting for the deus ex machina to descend. And lo, it does. The oil company arrives, just as Justine is about to go under a relatively dull looking knife-like implement, and the village rushes off to wage battle. Justine, aided by a young village child she has wooed with jewelry, escapes in her ritual body paint and natural fiber microkini, leaving Alejandro sous vide. She hustles through the jungle, under the waterfall, past the black jaguar, and into the clearing where the oil company militia is taking on the tribal warriors. Faking up a redo of the earlier cell phone activism, she manages to stop the battle and get herself airlifted back home, where she vouchsafes to no one the reality of her ordeal, instead singing the praises of the native tribe, all the better to ensure that Alejandro is eaten up with regret. (But maybe he’s not?!? Possible sequel, everybody).
There is no doubt that the representation of the tribe in the film partakes of racist tropes; it might be off-putting, if it could be taken seriously. The blueprint for the tribe is less Cannibal Holocaust than King Solomon’s Mines. Well, maybe even King Solomon’s Mines looks more anthropological. Perhaps a Tarzan film of pre-Johnny Weissmuller vintage? The tribe is led by what can only be called a sorceress; she has a milky eye, a chain running from her nose to her ear, and earrings that would seem out of place even in an ’80s themed camp fashion show. She wears a weird earthenware gom jabbar on her middle finger, carries a staff, and eats tongue al fresco with relish (and almost no chewing). Her chief henchman is bald, frequently bug-eyed, painted in black from head to toe, and has a nose ring the rises up, up, up around his head. We all understand that these are not people, nor anything near Amazonian tribespeople, but actors, representations of representations. The “regulars” of the village are more problematic, in that they do hew closer to what might be mistaken for reality (Hollywood style, that is, looking more like extras from At Play in the Fields of the Lord). In fact, it is not simply the tribespeople that we have a hard time taking seriously, it is the entire enterprise. Now, in one respect, this is simply the mark of a bad (or more accurately, stupid) film. But it is not laughable, nor played for laughs. In what is its closest connection to Cannibal Holocaust, Roth presents the values and ideals of these college students in a serious, if caricatured, way; similarly, he treats the classroom discussion of female circumcision with anthropological and political gravity. Indeed, given how stupid and crass the subject matter of the film is, almost nothing is played for laughs, or winked at. Is this a case of accidental “virtue,” a kind of Ed Wood “bungling?” One could make the argument. For instance, in one scene during the waiting to be eaten cage sequence, Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton), the girl who eventually kills herself, is racked with diarrhea, and has a prolonged evacuation in her jumpsuit. (The natives laugh at this, but we are not cued to join them). However, when she is later pulled forward for her virginity exam, her jumpsuit is not only not befouled, she is wearing a spanking clean pair of purple panties that shows not a stain. Did Roth really overlook this continuity error? It is quite possible. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps this film is not even near the realm of attempting a relationship with “reality.” In the fully post-modern sense (perhaps even as far as Godard is post-modern), we are self-consciously looking at a representation from within. The characters are not people who, through their death, and its subsequent filmic record, are made into images (as in Cannibal Holocaust); they are images first and foremost, no more real, or deep, than the characters in a Coca-Cola commercial. These timeless, placeless young white bourgeoisie are tormented by, if anything, their placelessness. What are they to do? Why do they exist? Just to be flat fodder for a car advertisement? Is that all there is for them? Is that “success?” They want more – so they adventure into the rain forest to “make a difference.” In the rain forest, they are caught between an image of the past and an image of the present that supports them. They are simply puppets of the multinational corporations that are despoiling the “real” world to support our fantasy image of that world – an image of abundance, of easy access to magically produced consumer goods, of ready, easily procured, and cheap meat on our tables. They cannot accept such a situation, as it reveals them to be one-dimensional, powerless, a front for the terrible forces of the “real.” However, what is their other option? The other side of the coin is an atavism that is as alien to them as it would be to the rest of us – a world of true communism, where the individual is lost within the group will, where daily struggle must ensure survival, and where the cruel practices that mark the passage from one modality of life to another are not masked by a neuter symbolism. Thus the behavior of Alejandro, who espouses conspiracies, which run on the logic of images, and who has nothing but optics in mind. It is the hell of no-exit that The Green Inferno documents; it does it through the tropes of a genre film, and it probably does it unknowingly, but all the same, it is a movie about being caught between an image of our past (which has only an imagined connection to past realities) and the realities that support and produce our images (which are our only means of knowing present-day reality). Thus it makes perfect sense this is a movie about cannibalism, as it is a movie about images coming to awareness that they too are mere products, made to be consumed. Thus the dream-like acceptance of their fates, and the lack of horror or feeling on our parts; watching them be led away is no more than watching slips of paper fall into a bonfire. Thus too the ending, with Justine returning and projecting, for those protected and naive images back home (unaware that they are products with a use value), a false image of the tribe. She is forced to create that which does not exist – an ideal outside to the hellish closed circle of unreal existence. Cannibal Holocaust was infinitely more disturbing, as it still could claim a purchase on reality; indeed, the production and reception of the film was imbricated in reality to the degree that it was proclaimed snuff. It is a true image of exploitation. The Green Inferno fits our era as it is post-exploitation. The joke is that we sit watching this film, feeling next to nothing, not realizing it is a mirror, and we are seeing ourselves; with nothing left to exploit, we have begun consuming ourselves, and yet we still believe we do good, that things will turn around, that a resurgence of idealism will arise, ex nihilo, to save us. We can paint the red of hell green, and call it paradise, but eventually, the heat will melt away all the artifice, and reveal truth and reality on a scale we, blinded by modernity, cannot yet conceive.