Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Green Inferno

You can take Eli out of the hostel, but you can't take the hostel of out Eli, even when you drop him in the rainforest. The Green Inferno (finished in 2013 but just now getting a wider release) is director Eli Roth's return to feature filmmaking after a six-year absence from behind the camera, although he made a slew of acting appearances during that time, most notably Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Roth's previous work as a director includes Cabin Fever and, most notably, Hostel and Hostel: Part II.

I can't say I'm fan of Roth's. In fact, I'd go as far to say he's one of my least favorite people in the genre because I've found his work to be juvenile, irritating, and nowhere near as clever nor as shocking as they've been touted to be. Yes, he piles on the blood and guts and sex and genre homages, but his movies, I've found, lack sympathetic characters, compelling plots, suspense, and genuine fear.

However, perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder; the trailer for The Green Inferno was impressive, and I was looking forward to seeing it. I'd hoped that between an authentic jungle location, and maybe rubbing shoulders with Quentin Tarantino, Roth would give us something transgressive and different, something I could stand behind and say I'm a fan of. Unfortunately, despite the cool jungle setting, The Green Inferno is Eli Roth offering his usual bag of tricks. It's not as obnoxious as his earlier movies and has its inspiration, but it's still not quite there.

Like Hostel, The Green Inferno can be boiled down easily: a group of naive but arrogant American college students go to another country and stumble upon a group of locals that torture and kill them. In Hostel, the protagonists went to Slovakia and became prisoners of an organization that allows rich businessmen to pay for the pleasure of killing them. In The Green Inferno, the protagonists go to Peru to stop deforestation and wind up on the menu of a cannibal village.

In both movies, it takes a long, long time to get to the thriller elements. The Green Inferno is an improvement over this regard because its characters, while mostly bland and uninteresting, aren't chauvinistic pigs, and the first half of the movie isn't a graphic sex comedy. Still, it takes a while to get going, starting at a New York university, dinner at a restaurant with the main character's father, and a couple of meetings with the students as they discuss what they're planning to do.

The main character, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), is a freshman who after a lecture about female genital mutilation, decides she wants to do something to change the world, so she joins up with student activists who are going to Peru. They are led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who is every pretentious activist leader on campus you've ever encountered, but for some reason, Justine has the hots for him, even though he already has a bitchy girlfriend and another, nicer guy, Jonah (Aaron Burns), seems to like her. This soap opera stuff, plus the later revelation that Alejandro is really in the employ of another construction company that wants to stop the current construction effort so it can swoop in, is a big, fat who cares. Why bother with all this stuff, other than to fill time, when it all goes out the window once the plane crashes and the cannibals capture the students? With the exception of Alejandro's true nature, none of the stuff has a payoff because key players in the relationship drama get killed off, so it's mostly a waste of time.

Once the movie gets to the cannibal village, it does pick up (although I wish Roth had spent more time with the group lost in the jungle once their plane crashed; instead the cannibals capture them almost as soon as they hit the ground). When the survivors of the group are taken to the village and dozens if not hundreds of natives, painted red like demons, swarm them and feel them up, it's an effective scene; these students are completely at the mercy of these villagers, and it's an sequence that feels like Hell on Earth. Roth buries his camera in the sea of bodies, and the viewer will feel overwhelmed and trapped. The use of an authentic jungle setting is also effective because this location does feel like it's a hundred miles from any kind of modern civilization.

Roth also sprinkles in some details that have a nice, gallows humor. After the first of the students is dismembered (plus his tongue and eyes are gouged out), the villagers roast his body and sprinkle the meat with spices and herbs, and they go about it while humming a song and laughing like housewives in the kitchen. Another student discovers they to have been unwittingly eating one of their fellows when she finds her friend's tattooed skin in her bowl.  For the most part, Roth avoids much of the stupid humor he put in his earlier movies, although when one character has an attack of diarrhea in the cage, it plays more like something out of American Pie.

Make no mistake: The Green Inferno is a graphically violently movie, and all sorts of ghastly things happen to the characters. People are stabbed, impaled, cut up, eaten, covered with fire ants, and sliced up just about every way you can imagine. Roth also seems to have a pessimistic view of his characters, practically contempt, something which runs throughout his work. The protagonists are a bunch of spoiled middle class elites who think they know what's best for everyone else while the foreigners are a bunch of deranged, bloodthirsty psychotics. Since no one in the movie is worth caring about, the gore is ultimately there to support itself, and while it's shocking and visceral, it's not especially scary.

Gorehounds will probably rejoice The Green Inferno. I can't bring myself to recommend it, but I do think Roth is showing improvement as a director. What he really needs to do, I think, is get away from his formula, forget the college students walking into danger setup, and find something more adult. The Green Inferno shows signs he might just be moving in that direction.

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