Friday, October 9, 2015

Throw Another Activist on the Barbie


I wasn't sure whether I wanted to check out Eli Roth's The Green Inferno, mainly because, well, it's an Eli Roth movie. After Cabin Fever and the two Hostel movies, Roth struck me as very much a one-trick pony. However, having read a few positive remarks about the film — as well some some that one might politely call blistering — watch The Green Inferno I did. While it's not an altogether displeasing movie, little about it alters my original perception of its writer/director. It is, in the way of exploitation movies, exploitative, brutal, graphic, loud, and ultimately silly. It follows the Roth formula to the letter, introducing in its first act a bunch of youthful characters, most of whom are not even a little bit sympathetic and whom you can rest assured will end up in a pickle. If there is any departure, character-wise, from Roth's earlier movies, it's that these youngsters aren't out simply to get their jollies doing mindless young-person things; they appear to have a purpose in life, and an honorable one, at least on the surface: to stop the destruction of the Peruvian rain forest and protect the indigenous tribes therein from being massacred by corrupt developers and the militia that accompanies them.

The story in a nutshell (spoilers):

Swayed by a charismatic activist named Alejandro (Ariel Levy), na├»ve college freshman Justine (Lorenza Izzo) joins his group on their trip to Peru. They successfully stop — at least temporarily — a crew of developers and their attendant militia from devastating a village deep in the Amazonian rain forest. However, as the group makes a jubilant exit via small charter plane, an engine fire causes it to crash. Several of the young people are killed in the crash, but some, including Justine and Alejandro, survive. Members of the aforementioned tribe now arrive on the scene and, believing the youngsters are part of the team of developers, forcibly drag them back to the village. Neither the students nor any of the tribe speak the other's language, and this communication gap proves a serious obstacle to good relations, a fact made abundantly clear when villagers hack up, cook, and eat Jonah (Aaron Burns), one of the few sympathetic members of the team. Over the next few days, more of the survivors are added to the menu, and things start looking bad in a slightly different vein for Justine, who has been selected to undergo female genital mutilation, another of the tribe's less-than-gentle customs. However, before she meets her unpleasant fate, circumstances arise that allow her to escape the village, and she makes her way back to the original logging site, where she is rescued by the very militia she faced down at the beginning.

Much has been made of the movie's stereotypical portrayal of cannibalistic natives and implied racism. Although I think it's been overplayed, a case could reasonably be made for such a view. On those grounds, there was at least one call to suppress the movie, which I don't think ever gained any momentum (more on this topic in "Ban The Green Inferno," July 16, 2015). While Roth used primitive people, indigenous to a little-explored, remote corner of the earth, as bloodthirsty cannibals, one could also argue that any less-than-desirable portrayal of any minority negatively impacts entire groups. As a writer of fiction, I have great difficulty applying blanket accusations of prejudice and worse over a totally fictional — not to mention implausible — scenario. No, The Green Inferno does not paint the Amazon natives in a pleasant light; neither does it insinuate nor otherwise imply that these characters are actually representative of such people, or that it's anything other than fiction. Whether it's good fiction is certainly debatable. Roth may be guilty of lazy storytelling; or insensitivity; or of nothing more than exploitation for exploitation's sake, which, for better or for worse, is his specialty. Roth uses tropes that might best affect his target audience, and who do you suppose that is? Hostel offered a negative portrayal of small town Eastern Europe, but we don't jump up on our moral high horses over that one. (Simply because the villains are white?) I hardly think The Green Inferno is a film of sufficient power to influence anyone's way of thinking about indigenous Amazonian tribes — certainly not anyone with the capacity for critical thought. The most power it has, I should think, would be the power to bring someone's lunch back up.

On that count, for me, it was quite the reverse. I worked up a hell of an appetite sitting in that theater. There's no question the violence is graphic and unsettling, Jonah's murder in particular. Immediately following, there's an effective scene with the villagers, down to the youngest children, happily feasting on the roasted body parts. The atmosphere here, as a matter of fact, is not unlike what one might expect to find at a neighborhood pig pickin'. (And I'd really kind of like to get the recipe they used for slow-cooking Jonah's body; it looked fabulous.)

Despite their savagery, the villagers, however, are not played as particularly evil. Brutal, yes, but many members of the human species behave with brutality against their enemies — and there's no question that in this film, they believe the activists are their enemies, not their allies. Apparently, the tribal mum (Antonieta Pari), takes a shine to Justine, since she decrees that Justine is to undergo an indelicate procedure involving her private parts rather than end up in the cooker. I've found myself a little peeved at certain critical reactions to this scene, in that more than one writer has appeared miffed that the movie makers should expect the audience to feel badly for Justine, since she's white and who knows how many women in cultures around the world undergo such torture. For God's sake, I should be quite the ass if, in real life, I could downplay the trauma this woman would suffer because she is not a minority. Roth, as a storyteller, focuses on the individual he feels is most representative of his audience. I've no doubt that Roth, like it or not, has a fair handle on his target demographics.
Lorenza Izzo as Justine and writer/director Eli Roth on location
The ending of the movie, which I will not detail here, very nearly stands everything Justine and her late fellow travelers experienced on its head. I have to wonder about Roth's purpose here. Is it to express some kind of faux nobility on Justine's part? Is it pure denial? An exercise in lame irony? Or is it a roundabout way of trying to keep others from going back and experiencing the same horrors she did? And then, as the credits begin to roll, there is one last scene, no doubt in place because Roth isn't quite ready to let us leave the rain forest in peace, that is good for one great big bona fide eye roll.

Nope, Roth didn't hit on all cylinders here, not that I expected him to. Nor did he totally blow it. I cannot go so far as to say I enjoyed this movie; I think to truly enjoy it, you'd have to have more of the sadist about you than I do. And while I can get into some fairly deviant fiction — emphasis on fiction — I tend to stop shy of relishing sadism, except maybe when I'm driving to work in the morning or listening to Fox News. There are a few moments of levity in The Green Inferno that, despite being sophomoric as all get-out, actually caused me to crack a smile. And on the whole, since the movie doesn't lapse into cartoonishness — not much, anyway — it doesn't go south as badly as either Cabin Fever or Hostel, both of which ventured into some pretty chilling territory before turning ridiculous.

I suppose it's fair to say I have some appreciation for this movie, though I have no desire to watch it again. Of course, I believed the same thing about Hostel, until I happened to catch it again when I was in the hospital a few weeks back. It turned out to be a little more engaging than I remembered. Whether I might at some point feel the same about The Green Inferno remains to be seen.
On the plane, before the poop hits the prop
Young activists Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) and Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) contemplating a hideous fate
A lot of this happens in the movie.
The tribal elder (Antonieta Pari) enjoys a little tongue.
After smoking a bit of high-powered Pervuvian pot, the natives get the munchies.

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