The Green Inferno (2015): Eli Roth's politically incorrect cannibal holocaust
It may not be one of the best film posters ever designed, but there’s no denying its eloquence: Surrounded by green leaves and thick roots, a severed human hand lies on the ground. In the grip of its bloody fingers, an iPhone displays Twitter’s latest trends: #JungleGate, #ACTnowUN, #SocialJusticeForAll, #NativeLivesMatter, and #IndigenousLivesMatter. Above this gory spectacle, a blood-red tagline promises that “JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED”. Beneath the hand’s protruding radial bones, thick sharp letters spell the film’s title: THE GREEN INFERNO.
In a single image, everything you need to know about the content and tone of Eli Roth’s 2015 shocker is communicated with the deceptively crude lack of subtlety we’ve come to expect from him. Never one to shy away from controversy, Roth quickly came under fire from indigenous rights groups for the perceived racism of his film’s premise, which sees a group of college activists getting cannibalized by the indigenous tribe they sought to defend against a powerful logging company. With this poster, The Green Inferno wears its political incorrectness on its sleeve.
Of course, concerns over its apparent dehumanization of uncontacted native tribes are well-founded. Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, cannibalism as a cultural practice is all but extinct in the Amazon, and female genital mutilation (an important plot point in the film) isn’t practiced there at all. Perpetuating western neocolonial fantasies all while taking shots at proponents for social change, as the film’s marketing campaign seemed intent on doing, can understandably be seen as irresponsible at best.
Yet in truth, The Green Inferno’s concoction of gore, political satire, and cultural and racial stereotypes serve a purpose beyond juvenile posturing: To challenge the unconscious ethnocentrism that lies at the core of many well-intentioned humanitarian campaigns, by placing familiar tropes and clichés in unfamiliar settings. What starts as a fairly straightforward send-up of unthinking left-wing activism progressively segues into a horrific dismantling of the ideas associated with it.
The first act, which sees feminist student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) join militant group ACT and get involved in their plan to infiltrate and disrupt the logging company’s activities, very much resembles one person’s gradual indoctrination within a cult: Under the influence of the group’s charismatic leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), Justine is drawn to a world of slogans (“Don’t think – ACT!”), conformism (“This is not about the individual, this is about the cause”), and power fantasies disguised as selflessness (“Have you ever had fantasies of saving a dying tribe?”), where dissenting thought is treated as the sign of a weak, selfish, and closed mind. And indeed, as the film progresses, more shadows of doubt are cast on the sincerity of the group’s actions right until their capture by the cannibal tribe, after which it becomes all too clear there’s much more to Alejandro and his organization than meets the eye. It’s also at this point that The Green Inferno’s sneakier political argument takes center stage, under the form of its most contentious aspect: the misrepresentation of indigenous Amazonian tribes.
The most immediately striking thing about the film’s natives is the sheer length Roth goes to “other” them: Covered in body paint ranging from blood red to bright yellow, they speak mainly in strange chants and exclamations that are only subtitled when signaling an important plot development. This makes the rationale behind their ritualistic torture, slaughter, and cannibalism impossible to understand beyond the most basic level. Closed off to any behavioral analysis or any possibility of finding common ground, save the one innocent child with whom Justine forms a silent bond that proves to be her salvation, the natives are truly unknowable.
And that’s where things gets interesting: The unexpected upside of this unknowability is that it makes it hard for the audience to pass any real moral judgment on the natives. Unlike the one-dimensionally monstrous tribe from Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, they display a moderately broad range of emotions: Happiness, anger, mirth, fear, curiosity… In that sense, they’re still somewhat humanized people whose actions, horrific as they appear to us, follow a certain logic that we only understand in bribes, such as a belief that their victims are “gifts from the Gods”, and a stereotypical fixation on Justine’s virginity.
In interviews, Roth has cited Werner Herzog as one of the film’s influences. He was likely referring to Herzog’s examinations of human hubris in exotic locations, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Grizzly Man, but he’s also shown a keen interest in observing otherness from the perspective of marginalized people, most notably in Even Dwarfs Started Small, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Stroszek. This influence is clearly perceptible both in Roth’s non-judgmental othering of the natives and the presence of the Amazon itself as a living deity, symbolized by a mythical jaguar guardian.
From that perspective, The Green Inferno’s portrayal of natives—unquestionably problematic as it is from an ethical standpoint—becomes more than a simple lazy stereotype. It’s a challenge to both the loggers and the activists’ respective worldviews. After the natives’ first meal, Alejandro explains their actions by supposing “they think we’re the enemy”. It’s a reasonable hypothesis, given the fact that they’re all still wearing the same yellow jumpsuits as the loggers they’ve infiltrated. But given the haziness of what little information we have on the natives’ motivations, it can also be interpreted as the projection of one’s own way of thinking on a completely foreign culture.
In effect, the activists’ mindset and the logging company’s selfish unfettered capitalism are equivocated as separate manifestations of colonialist thought. One imposes or projects a set of values on foreign people out of concern for their well-being, while the other invades, destroys, and occupies their land for profit.
It’s an equivocation that’s bound to ruffle feathers, and not without reason. What I find most interesting is the dilemma it poses for privileged yet socially conscious western viewers: How do you respond to injustice involving a culture completely different from your own without disrespecting it in any way? The answer suggested by The Green Inferno lies in an acceptance of irreconcilable cultural differences, and the upholding of every people’s right to self-determination. Hence Justine’s decision at the film’s conclusion, which I won’t reveal here, but which can be described as a pragmatically progressive management of the film’s rather cynical worldview, in which tools rewarded by the system are used to protect a vulnerable community, rather than give a self-serving illusion of doing so. It’s a questionable conclusion to be sure, not least because the binary “us-versus-them” mentality on which the narrative operates still remains fundamentally unchallenged. But the points it raises about how Millennials engage with global issues are worth considering.
Thanks to social media and blogs, information on current injustices is brought to more people with greater speed than ever before, and heretofore marginalized minorities have more platforms from which to raise awareness to their conditions. It’s a tool with great capacity for good, but one whose propensity for prioritizing emotional reactions over measured ones makes it easy to misuse. Feelings become more important than facts, and regardless of our political identification, our judgment on complex and multifaceted issues becomes clouded by a need to simplify and adjust our outlook on them, lest we be forced to accept permanent reappraisal and uncertainty over the comfortable conviction of being in the right.
The Green Inferno is by no means a great movie. The acting varies from good to passable, the dialogue can be a little ropey, and the screenplay’s indulgence in slasher archetypes and clichés (guess what happens to the only black guy in the group?) occasionally threatens to overwhelm its central argument. But it does distinguish itself by challenging impulsive political crusading without settling for facile smugness.
Even putting the gore and violence aside, the film is disturbing and uncomfortable to watch because of the many problems posed by its portrayal of indigenous Amazonians, as well as the messages on social activism and cultural differences that portrayal is used to convey and illustrate. It’s also precisely that problematic content that makes it so noteworthy in a horror landscape bereft of meaningful political substance. Using classical structure and familiar imagery, The Green Inferno gives the initial impression of pandering to our fears and prejudices in order to make its political sucker-punch all the more effective. How many horror films can you think of that demand so much discussion and debate from their audience?