It’s been a while since we offered up some movie chatter here on HNR. But given the controversy surrounding Eli Roth’s new film, The Green Inferno, we figured now was a good time to talk movies. Erin Shaw brings us a compelling breakdown of the new flick, and whether you’re an Eli Roth fan or not, you’re going to want to check this out!
Written by: Erin Shaw
The first thing I’m going to say is this: If you are looking for the extreme gore that this film was hyped for – look elsewhere. I know it was supposed to be gruesome and had people fainting etc. etc. Yeah, no.
However, that does not mean that there’s not plenty worth seeing in this film.
Everyone knows the basic premise by now – a group of college students travel to Peru to protest the bulldozing of territory occupied by an indigenous tribe who have had no contact with the outside world. The group runs into more than they bargained for. Without spoiling anything, I can say that it’s pretty obvious from the first scenes who Eli Roth wants us to be rooting for. Picture it: A pair of native Peruvians are walking peacefully through the forest when they are rudely and dangerously interrupted by some form of heartless modern machinery. Doesn’t leave a whole lot to chance does it?
As the movie continues and the college kids get ready to leave, we find that they are not completely unlikeable, as is often the case in Roth’s previous films, though many of them are quite naïve and a bit pretentious. The main character, Justine; seems quite earnest in wanting to help and she does not seem to harbor any Manifest Destiny style plans for the tribal grounds nor does she seem to view herself as a ‘white knight’. Her motives appear refreshingly pure.
The main part of the movie that seems to have people cringing and bothered takes place in the village of the indigenous people. They mistakenly identify Justine and her friends as belonging to the same group of people who are trying to destroy their land and they abduct them. As we all know, cannibalistic chaos ensues. Roth is clearly trying to pay his respects to cannibal films of old, and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust in particular seems to be his focus. Because of this, we do see many golden oldie style cannibal tropes (eating alive, plucking out eyeballs and tongues, genital disfigurement, mounting heads etc.) which are somewhat gross I suppose for the sometime horror fan but it is truly baby stuff for those used to the vast varieties of the horror genre. Much as Cannibal Holocaust was a good and memorable film, I do question the wisdom of trying to emulate Deodato. Is it ethical to emulate a man who made his film possible through the killing of animals on camera and the alleged emotional abuse of his cast? But that’s just a personal beef. One major thing Deodato and Roth’s films do have in common is the allegations of racism that seem to come with any film that presents an untouched tribal society. Roth’s film (and Deodato’s I believe, though that is another review) are not, however, racist at all. After saying that, be warned that Roth leads you down a path in Green Inferno that allows you to make conclusions about his Peruvian antagonists all by yourself. These conclusions will likely say more about you than they do about Roth. Let me explain:
Roth knows that cannibalism makes people very uncomfortable as it is a major societal taboo. He also knows that people fear and draw quick conclusions about things they don’t understand. Roth leaves his native tribe as an entirely cultural blank slate. The people dress in loincloths, put bones in their faces, and paint their bodies. They use poison darts and Stone Age era tools – they are uninfluenced by technology but that is really all that we know. Oh, and there’s the fact that they eat people.
Roth deliberately has the natives do a lot of talking without offering subtitles so we can only draw vague conclusions about what they are like and why they do what they do. Animals and plants are seen around as other food sources, and the tribe seems quite isolated from other tribes so it is clear that they don’t survive entirely on a diet of long pig. They do seem to practice some form of spirituality, but what that is about is a mystery. Left with little information then, the actual reasons for their cannibalism are left up to us to guess.
Roth visited an actual Peruvian village during filming and while the villagers were a bit more familiar with outsiders, they had not experienced television or film. Roth showed them Cannibal Holocaust as a way of asking them to participate in his movie and telling them what he’d like them to do. They liked the movie apparently, and found it quite funny. Thus, the actors portraying the tribes people in the film were simply a Peruvian tribe being a Peruvian tribe – with the addition of eating people. The lack of background on this tribe kind of leads to a ‘choose your own adventure’ for your mind as the filmgoer conjures up their own reasons for why these people munch on other people. The typical racism accusations lobbed at Roth said that he was promoting the ‘savage native’ stereotype but since the people being filmed aren’t acting for the most part, they are just largely being themselves, wouldn’t that conclusion be something the filmgoers draw themselves? Is it racist to view a group of people as they truly are by their own admission? Other than asking them to pretend to like eating other folks, Roth is simply filming these people as they look, act and speak every day. We get to fill in the blanks and since we like to know things in films and we didn’t get to know much here since the natives speak in a language we cannot understand – we assume things. Are these people ‘savage’ because of the cannibalism? Because you know that’s all make-believe right? Or are we uncomfortable with seeing people who live nothing at all like we do and furthermore see that they are not chomping at the bit to be like us even after seeing a real live film crew? Do we think our ‘civilized’ world is that much the bees’ knees that we project our xenophobia onto this quite remote South American tribe that we couldn’t find on a map? Our discomfort looms large when we cannot decipher what others are saying and doing doesn’t it? It feels wrong and alien for us not to be able to have the privilege of understanding and so we will tend to forget that these natives have rich inner lives and thoughts and opinions – some of which are being said aloud onscreen! Right in front of us! The nerve! This angers us much like hearing whispering – we always wonder what it’s about and we often think the worst.
I think it threatens some people that other human beings can live happy lives in ways that have nothing to do with our modernities and they therefore cry racism on a film that portrays native peoples living simple lives – cause that must be wrong; right? It must be a stereotype, a racist trope because no one in their right mind would actually live that way anymore right? Well, that wasn’t my thought – I just thought the rainforest was pretty, but that’s just me. I could be totally wrong about all of this. Therefore, watch Green Inferno! And draw your own conclusions. This is a movie that is not getting any credit for being the great thought exercise that it is.