To begin with, let me explain that this will be a review of the movie only. I realize that entertainment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but I feel that the various claims of racism and exploitation surrounding the film have been explored by others, and written about far better, than I could hope to do myself. For a rundown of some of those issues, I suggest you visit Amazon Watch. I’ll be discussing The Green Inferno purely in terms of its strengths and weaknesses as a piece of horror cinema.
The story centers on Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a naïve college freshmen (and daughter of a United Nations lawyer, conveniently) who takes up the cause of deforestation as much out of a desire to do good as a longing to catch the eye of the charismatic student activist leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy). She joins the group in the eleventh hour, and is almost immediately whisked away by tiny plane to the Amazonian rainforest to partake in a protest along with Alejandro; his territorial girlfriend, Kara; affable Jonah, who is smitten with Justine; and a slew of other shallowly-written characters.
Surprisingly, despite a few minor life-or-death complications, the group appears successful at stopping a crew from bulldozing an Amazonian tribe’s woodland home. As the students toast one another on the plane ride home, though, the plane crashes – directly in the backyard of the tribe they just went to great lengths to save. Unfortunately, the tribespeople don’t know about the students’ friendly agenda – and it seems unlikely they’d care even if they did – and promptly get down to the business of killing and eating them. Naturally.
The first half hour or so follows Justine around her college campus, introducing the characters to come to slaughter and trafficking in some cringingly wooden acting, which I blame more than anything on clunky writing. It’s a strings-exposed setup that’s merely there to make the audience question the motivations and ability of these characters, and to move the audience along to the “good stuff” – i.e., the gore.
I don’t mind that the characters are stereotypes – the disposable character is a mainstay in horror, for better or worse – so much as I mind that they’re the wrong stereotypes. The stoner-slacker-guy, the girls who starve themselves in the name of social justice (but really just want an excuse to be anorexic) - these people, whom Eli Roth has called “slacktivists” in interviews, do exist in the real world and are a real problem, taking up issues they know little about and actively causing harm through their ignorance. The only hitch is that they wouldn’t be traveling into the heart of the Amazon to chain themselves to bulldozers; they’d remain in the shelter of their college enclaves, ranting from their safe little soapboxes.
As for Alejandro, he may not turn out to be quite the pious protestor he seems, but if anything, he’s more ambitious and worldly than expected. When he says something along the lines of, “The good guys are in bed with the bad guys because it’s the only way to get things done,” it’s actually a chillingly honest statement about how the world - and environmentalism - often works. But this truth doesn’t coherently follow with the rest of the story, which is full of mixed and conflicting messages. What is the film really saying? That the students should have kept their idealistic noses out of it, and they deserved to become grisly meals? That the tribe should have simply been allowed to die off? That is, after all, the only other possibility provided within the narrative. Ultimately, Roth’s point is so muddled that it seems risible to claim he set out to say anything at all.
All of this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie. Once the main characters are in the clutches of the tribe, and the film segues into a straightforward homage to the cannibal horror movies of old, it becomes a far more enjoyable affair. Well, “enjoyable” may not be the word everyone would use to describe watching the slicing and dicing of characters carry out onscreen, but I was relieved to find that Inferno wasn’t as stomach churning as I’d feared it would be. Granted, my tolerance for gore is somewhere in the medium-to-high range, and the first cannibal killing is grotesque to the extreme and very difficult to watch. But as far as carnage goes, it’s all downhill from there, and the film makes better use of the suspense of imagining what could happen rather than what does happen. It’s a fun ride for a while – tempered or heightened somewhat depending on your affinity for toilet humor – as the audience truly has no idea if anyone will make it out of the Amazon alive.
The cinematography in the Amazon is also a feast for the eyes, with the tribespeople painted a blood red that stands out starkly against the sweeping, lush green panoramas. Inferno was filmed farther out in the Amazon than any film before it, a feat that is both fascinating in its backstory and well worth the effort for what ends up onscreen. It’s clear that Inferno was a labor of love for Roth, who obviously knows and appreciates his film history and has a lot of talent behind the camera. I only wish he had employed a better writer to iron out some of the glaring story problems.
And there are more snares along the way. A subplot about female genital mutilation is undeniably disturbing and provides a great deal of suspense, but it’s completely nonsensical even in the context of a movie so far removed from reality. FGM is a terrifying, dangerous practice, but one that is reserved for members of the tribe or group, typically considered an honor designed to bring a young girl into womanhood. Why would the tribespeople perform this honorific ritual on a “gringo” they clearly plan on eating later? Frankly, there is no logical reason, other than a bid to add a level of horror and anticipation that the filmmaker couldn’t conjure up some other way. It works – it was definitely the part I found most unnerving – but at the expense of subjecting three female characters to rape (the women are probed with a sharp object in order to determine the status of their virginity), I’d have preferred not to see it at all.
The ending is a bit of a head scratcher. I won’t go into details, but again it struggles to say something – anything – about the ethics of modern activism. However, what it’s saying is nearly impossible to decipher within the larger framework of the movie. When all is said and done, Roth would have been better off admitting that The Green Inferno is simply a fun, gory sendup to Cannibal Holocaust and leaving it at that. All the purported social commentary does nothing but make him seem as clueless as his characters and make savvier watchers feel guilty for spending their money on it at all. I think Roth may have a great film in him, and I hope to see it someday. I just don’t think this is it.