The Green Inferno’s opening, a sequence depicting an old man and child walking through the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon and stumbling across deforestation’s bulldozing machines, dully sets up the promise of a bloodbath. Dull because these indigenous people are so devoid of agency that the only real tip-off that anyone who isn’t painted in the stereotypical image of the savage tribesman is bound to become a cannibal’s delight is knowledge of Eli Roth’s directorial credit. Without these scenes, the film passes, at least for a spell, as a millennial comedy notable for being almost profoundly conscious of its main characters’ warped sense of privilege.
In New York City, a group of college students, among them a rich man’s daughter, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), emboldened by the realization that female genital mutilation is a thing, decide to travel to the Amazon and save uncontacted tribes from encroachments they’re ostensibly powerless against. These kids throw caution to the wind, and they’re beyond heeding the ostensibly and popularly held cool-kid truism espoused by Justine’s roommate, Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), when she casually declares that “activism is so fucking gay.” They just want to get to the jungle—to save the world and maybe score some weed along the way. And that they get baked in more ways than one becomes the film’s great cosmic joke.
The do-goodership that propels The Green Inferno’s young white characters is understood to stem, in part, from a sense of disillusionment, even rootlessness; as such, there’s a pointed irony in these young men and women traveling to the Amazon to prevent deforestation from uprooting the lives of others. Roth, though, goes further by teasing out other rationales for their ambition, as in a scene where Kara (Ignazia Allamand) throws shade at Justine by asking her if she’s with them for “the right reasons”: After all, the group’s activist leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who’s also Kara’s squeeze, is rather hunky, and in spite of his easily irascible demeanor.
The film is more cognizant of cultural imperialism’s smugness and presumptuousness than its spiritual predecessor, the exploitation classic Cannibal Holocaust.
No scene appears to go by without these characters’ wishy-washiness or lack of preparedness being mocked: Told that they may need to use guns against the militia that guards the deforestation company and its machines of destruction, some ponder going back to the States; later, after being handed a gun so he can safely piss in the forest, stoner-dude Lars (Daryl Sabara) fires a few shots at the spider that nearly bites his dick. Roth’s goal is intriguing: to perpetually reorient the audience’s relationship to the horrific violence that his characters succumb to—that maybe, just maybe, these fools deserve to have their bodies served up for a cannibal tribe’s culinary delectation.
The Grand Guiginol that dominates the film’s second half is notable for its relentless gruesomeness and blackly, sometimes unintentional, comic streak. The tribe that captures the activists is lorded over by a one-eyed high priestess (Antonieta Pari) who may as well be a not-so-distant relative of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, and who plucks the eyes from Jonah’s (Aaron Burns) head with a flick—or two—of a pointy wooden weapon that appears permanently affixed to her hand. Casually, and liberally tipping his hand that his activist group’s agenda might not be so humane, Alejandro expresses relief that Jonah was the first to die, as his portly corpse will keep the natives satisfied for days. And in an absurdly inspired attempt at ensuring their getaway, the group stuffs Lars’s weed down the throat of one dead girl so the smoke that comes off her roasting body will incapacitate the cannibals.
Would that Roth’s style were as savvy as his modulations of tone. Aside from a striking shot from the inside of the activists’ plane as it crashes toward the ground, wherein the unexpectedly fixed camera observes bodies, luggage, and upchuck blending together in an elegant whirl of chaos, the film’s compositional sense is nearly as stilted as its performances. And while there’s an impression that the actors aren’t fully on Roth’s subversive wavelength, there’s also a sense that the filmmaker means to use his articulation of the principal characters’ general air of cluelessness as leverage—and not unlike the trinket Justine, in the spirit of yesteryear’s colonialists, uses to engender a tribal boy’s sense of empathy—against accusations of transgression. How can the film offend if it believes that everyone is inherently monstrous?
The Green Inferno is more cognizant of cultural imperialism’s smugness and presumptuousness than its spiritual predecessor, the exploitation classic Cannibal Holocaust. Yet both films equally whip their horrors to a frenzy by lavishing attention on a cannibal tribe’s expert butchery of the human body and, more problematically, the white person’s primal fear of the non-white other. The savagery of this tribe is undoubtedly rooted in retrograde myths, which might have been easier to stomach had Roth positioned the film’s cannibalism as a fantastical unleashing of retribution. Instead, the cannibals here exude an obliviousness to being encroached upon that feels perversely dehumanizing, as their barbarity is less the product of agency than stock villainy. They’re just glad to have uninvited guests at their outdoor BBQ.