Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Green Inferno (2015)

"Justine, this is good news. If he's telling the truth, then those bulldozers will tear these motherfuckers to shreds."

This is an actual line of dialogue in Eli Roth's The Green Inferno, spoken by one of our white main characters about the villainous (and entirely fictional) cannibal natives of the Peruvian Amazon.

To be absolutely clear, the character (whose name I can't remember because I don't think Roth ever bothered to tell us) is setting up the film's central premise — for our (again: white) protagonists to survive, we must root for the destruction of the Amazon and the violent death of the natives who live within it.

That's what this movie's about. For real.

I finally watched The Green Inferno after sort of purposefully avoiding it for months. But it kept popping up on Amazon feed and, unfortunately, curiosity got the best of me. I really wish it hadn't.

I'm not going to mince words here: The Green Inferno is a racist movie. In fact, it's a viciously, gleefully racist movie. We're talking Birth of a Nation-level racist. It's the sort of movie I'm actually stunned anyone was willing to fund or distribute.

Do I think Eli Roth is a vicious, gleeful racist? I don't know the guy personally, but no, probably not. But I've known a million Eli Roths in my day — dudebro, snickering heavy metal guys with the emotional and intellectual depth of the scrum of dirty water at the bottom of a kitchen sink. Guys who just love being offensive for the hell of it, who say things like "cunt" and "faggot" in mixed company because they like to see people squirm. And if you call them out for it, you're a pussy (or, in today's parlance, an "SJW"). Basically, guys like Phil Anselmo. And I get it. Hell, I used to kind of be that guy myself. 

As Buzzfeed's Allison Wilmore says in her review of The Green Inferno and Roth's other 2015 film, Knock Knock

"The Green Inferno, which is about college activists who have a run-in with cannibals, aims to be horrifying. Knock Knock, which is about two women wreaking havoc on a married man, aspires to be titillating. But more than anything, both persistently, persuasively angle to make you angry. They’re bad faith arguments expanded to feature length and served up with a you mad, bro? smirk. Roth, having reached the limits of splatter as a way to provoke, seems to have settled on something new: trolling."

She continues: 

"Their goading feels unpleasantly familiar, because it recalls internet griping about 'SJWs' and women lying about sexual assault. Whatever Roth claims, these movies sure feel like they’re catering to the grimmest parts of 4chan and Reddit, and that’s more nauseating to see onscreen than the most graphic of violence."

The Green Inferno is a riff on Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, considered by many to be the meanest horror film ever made (I've seen it, and I wouldn't exactly argue with that assessment). The movie centers on Justine (Lorenza Izzo, who also happens to be Roth's wife, and who is actually pretty good here), a college freshman drawn (because of a boy) into the world of college activism. Within two weeks, she's off with a group of barely sketched stereotypes to the Peruvian jungle so that they can all chain themselves to a bunch of bulldozers and stop the death or displacement of an isolated jungle tribe. Then their plane crashes, and the once-privileged "slacktivists" proceed to get horrifically killed and eaten by the very same tribe they were there to save.

Yes, The Green Inferno is offensive, but I don't want to give you the impression that that's the only thing wrong with it. It's also a deeply stupid movie, where the characters continuously do stupid, incomprehensible things like not take off their bright yellow jumpsuits while trying to hide from the cannibal natives in the jungle. It's a movie where the sight of a bunch of children laughing while a young woman almost literally shits her guts out is meant to be funny. Roth hasn't met a cliché he doesn't like, and the characters only ever rise above their respective types when they start behaving in weird, motiveless ways so he can advance what I guess is supposed to serve as his plot.

And it's not a particularly scary movie. The carnage would be laughable if it wasn't so boring. I was eating a cold pizza while watching it, and not once did my gorge rise. The only remotely cringe-inducing moments for me involved bugs, and that's only because I'm arachnophobic. The rest of it's just inane and unbelievably fake. I didn't buy one second of the violence. A guy's eyes get gouged out with sticks? Yawn. A woman cuts off a dude's tongue and eats it? Pass the popcorn.

Oh yeah, and if I haven't quite sold you yet, there's some really clumsily telegraphed female genital mutilation. By the time it actually occurs, it felt like Roth was simply ticking things off his checklist.

But let's get back to how this movie is really, horribly, stupefyingly racist. A few critics, including New York Magazine's David Edelstein, have tried to defend it by arguing that there's some sort of social commentary in here somewhere. Even my beloved Stephen King liked it. I'm not sure what movie they saw, but it sure as hell isn't the one I watched. Whatever commentary Roth might have been trying to make is completely undone by the incomprehensible nature of the film's message. It wallows in centuries-old primitivist stereotypes before absurdly trying to let itself off the hook at the end with a tacked-on speech about how bad racism is, or something. Is this movie about the futility of social-justice activism? I guess maybe? Or is it about the savage colonial exploitation of the Amazon? Could be, maybe, a little bit? Is it about how brown people are pretty scary and really actually just want to eat you? That's getting closer to the mark. Or is it about how awesome it is when that one fat dude's head gets cut off and then the tattooed lesbo gets skinned alive, but how it's kind of a bummer because we never got to see her tits? Now you're getting there. 

Horror fiction, by its very nature, depends on tapping into some very primal and irrational fears — the so-called "reptile brain" psychologists and neuroscientists like to talk about. As someone who writes horror myself, I think there's an inherent value in tapping into those fears. It's not just the proverbial "rollercoaster" ride so many critics talk about, but something rather deeper, more visceral, and much more necessary than that. It's like lancing a boil or draining the pus out of an infected wound — not always pleasant or pretty, but really goddamn important if you want to live.

But the problem for the horror writer (or filmmaker) is that these reptile-brain fears are also the source of some of our worst, most destructive impulses as a species. One of those basic fears is the fear of the other, or the alien — which can encompass everything from insects and arachnids, to space aliens, to Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster, to (frankly) people of ethnicities and cultures different from our own. This fear of the other is the primal, animal source of human bigotry.

I think horror is at its best when it drags these fears out into the open and forces us to examine them in unexpected ways. Horror fiction can become truly great when it twists the irrational in on itself to make a fundamentally rational point. Stephen King's The Stand has some interesting things to say about the dangers of unchecked technological progress. Scream has a valid point to make about violence and mass media. Roth himself actually made some shrewd observations about the post-9/11 American mental state in Hostel. Hell, even Cannibal Holocaust — as gross and exploitive as it is — yields a few smart and provocative ideas about gross exploitation. 

I'm not saying I want all our horror movies to come with bumper-sticker slogans, or that horror as a genre shouldn't be violent or confrontational. There are plenty of writers (Jack Ketchum) and filmmakers (James Watkins) I respect who've made entire careers of that. The difference is that their work isn't completely asinine. It's a fine line between dealing with our basest fears in a real and honest way and simply wallowing in them. That's what Roth wants us to do in The Green Inferno. While the white and/or American characters never really rise above caricature, the cannibal natives aren't even characters at all. Nothing about the tribe or its rituals makes any sense outside of dumb movie logic. They are an almost literally mindless horde that wants nothing more than to eat us alive. They're classic zombies, except instead of being dead they're brown.  

The Green Inferno is a racist movie because it taps deeply into our primal fear of the other and has absolutely nothing to say about it. Rather than give us anything approaching any sort of commentary on the subject, Roth just wants to gross us out and high-five himself while he does so. And he can't even get that part right.

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