99 Problems but Problematics Aren’t One

A quick Google search for “The Green Inferno” + problematic yields tens of thousands of hits. Not surprisingly, Eli Roth’s newest entry into the cannibal horror sub-genre has generated criticism on all sides of the cultural divide. Conservatives are crowing over the satire of slacktivist liberal elites while Amazon Watch has denounced the movie as racist.

Despite all the ink that has been and will be spilled over how “problematic” The Green Inferno is (and yes, it really, really is), Roth commits much deeper cinematic sins. The real problem with The Green Inferno as a film is that it is horribly unsure of its tone. It also has a major audience letdown that I will save for the end.

In order to discuss these problems, I’m going to have to spoil the good parts of The Green Inferno (insofar as there are any). Honestly, though, there’s so little going for this film other than the extreme cannibalism that I’m not really giving away much. But, fair warning, if you are not interested in being spoiled perhaps try something else?

For all the lengths Eli Roth went to make a “subversive” film, he did not go nearly far enough in terms of making an actually horrifying movie. The only truly disturbing scenes were watching Jonah be dismembered and cooked and the truly disturbing (and probably misguided) female genital mutilation plot line. While they both were horrifying, they were two fairly brief scenes in a 100-minute movie. If you are horrified by drum circles and liberal elitism you will surely be disturbed by The Green Inferno — Roth belabors those plot points much more than the actual blood and guts.

We see Justine (very ably played by Lorenza Izzo), a freshman student whose father is a lawyer for the United Nations, slowly get initiated into the student activist group led by the charming but ultimately deceitful Alejandro (played by Ariel Levy).

Their interminable preparation for the Peruvian expedition to shut down a mining operation threatening a native village plays out in nearly real time as Justine struggles to be embraced by anyone other than the portly Jonah (Aaron Burns), who harbors an obvious unrequited love for Justine.

When we actually arrive at the horror, not only is it limited, but it is punctuated by an oddly comic sensibility. Perhaps because Roth could not decide if he wanted, or was even capable, of making this a truly horrifying movie, he slides into weird slapstick again and again compromising the overall tone.

For some reason, when Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) becomes sick with diarrhea he not only shows her squatting and relieving herself but accompanies it with foley sound that reminds me of Chef’s literal pants-shitting death from South Park. After Amy’s death, the crew decides to shove marijuana down her throat so that when the tribe cooks her, they might get high enough that they won’t notice the crew escaping. Alejandro calls it “Scooby Doo” level antics, which it is.

The most illustrative example of this is a scene near the end of the second act. One of the women, Samantha, has attempted an escape and the crew doesn’t know what has happened to her. The next day, as they are eating offal from clay bowls, Amy realizes that they are eating Samantha. Overwhelmed with disgust and horror, Amy breaks her bowl and slices her throat open. Alejandro then proceeds to immediately put his hands down his pants and masturbate while he calmly explains that everyone has their own way of dealing with stress…

Jimmy Sangster, the prolific Hammer Horror writer and director, said, “You have to give the audience time to relax before scaring the shit out of them.” That is as true today as it was in Sangster’s era. You can accomplish this by having quiet moments of character development (like in the original Poltergeist), or through alternating between intense horror and more grounded plot (like in The Ring), or even through introducing some levity — in fact, sometimes introducing a bit of levity can develop into much deeper, more troubling horror (like in The Blair Witch Project). One of the best examples employing all of these techniques is the Paranormal Activity franchise. The intensity of the horror in those movies follows a dynamic, nonlinear path upward so that by the end you are at almost unbearable levels of terror (if you’re in to that sort of thing).

The Green Inferno botches this job entirely. Not only does Roth seem to spend all of his MPAA ratings credits in just a handful of scenes, instead of spreading things out to ratchet up the horror and intensity over time, he punctuates what he does have with totally inappropriate moments that take you out of the film. More than anything, it feels like Roth had about two and a half ideas (cannibal tribe who eats people + slamming so-called “social justice warriors” + maybe some FGM?) that would have been better served as a short and in order to play them out over a feature length he diluted them of any real power that they had.

All of these plot elements weigh the movie down and contribute to the overall muddled tone, but Roth’s cardinal sin is this: he lets Alejandro live.

Alejandro, the man who tricked Justine into coming to Peru, and nearly killed her, to leverage her father’s UN connections. Alejandro, who engineered the entire operation as a PR stunt for his organization and knew that the village would be destroyed anyway. Alejandro, who blew off Jonah’s death by saying at least they’d be spared longer because he was fat. Alejandro, who pulled his dick out and masturbated immediately after Amy’s suicide because “c’mon bro, just chill”. This horrible example of humanity lives through to the end credits (which includes a baffling teaser for a sequel). After all of this set up, horror movie audiences not only deserve but ought to demand to worst death of all for Alejandro. Don’t we get to have a release, too?

In the end, what Eli Roth has created is basically a motion picture South Park episode about “social justice warriors” who get eaten by the people they were trying to save. Honestly, a 22-minute South Park episode would probably have been a better vehicle for that type of satire. In a 100-minute film, it becomes tired and quickly played out. But the satire and cruelty towards these types of activists isn’t what held the movie back. It is Roth’s own uncertainty about what kind of movie he wanted to make.