It’s not news that Americans have a poor reputation abroad. We’re viewed as stupid, naive, and arrogant. Not the best self-image to have. Movies have responded by turning us into a trope. The silly Americans overseas. Think of the fat family in In Bruges. Or worse, National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Or Brian Mill’s daughter in Taken, who can’t seem to not get taken. All of these films satirize the cliché American, whether it’s the middle-class, white-bread family, or the teenage bopper looking to sate her taste of the exotic. Eli Roth goes further than this in his parody of the modern American, in The Green Inferno.
Roth has The Green Inferno‘s lead role, college-student Justine (Lorenza Izzo), play a modern trope that he takes no mercy on, the hyper-sensitive millennial. After watching a short film on female genital mutilation, the soft-hearted Justine feels immediately compelled to do something about it immediately, and so she talks to her dad at the UN. Unsurprisingly, her dad bursts her bubble, explaining that the sheer logistics of eradicating a global phenomenon is not something achievable by one man overnight. Disappointed at this, Justine decides to throw her lot with a group of campus activists she’s been eyeing. And it doesn’t hurt that the activists are led by the suave, sensitive, guitar-playing Latin-American, a modern Che Guevara, Alejandro (Ariel Levy).
Alejandro teaches Justine the tools of activism. First, you have to use shame. Shame the governments of countries that condone unethical practices. Second, use social media. “These are our guns,” he says, hold up his cellphone. When Alejandro brings the group of American students to Peru to protest the razing of the Amazon for development, he teaches them that the best way to save the rainforest, and her native inhabitants, is to constantly live stream footage to shame the development company until they acquiesce and close shop. This use of social media as a weapon touches on a point made in another of Eli Roth’s films, Knock Knock. The final scene to this erotic thriller has Evan Weber’s (Keanu Reeve) character buried to his neck, cowering before his two seductresses. One of the girls lifts up a massive stone, ready to drop it on his face, when thump, she throws it aside, instead forcing him to watch live comments come in to freshly posted footage of him fucking the other girl. For the sweet, family man, who was aggressively raped by these two nubile gals, this absolutely destroys him. At this moment it seems like a physical death would be preferable, at least more absolute, than this torturous death via social media. This is the power of shame.
Cock fights in the Philippines. Child marriages in Yemen. Matadors in Spain. Female genital mutilation in Sudan. Dog meat in Korea. Are some of these clearly unethical? Of course. But are the people that have these centuries-old practices inherently evil? Probably no more than you or me. Sometimes the real sin becomes not them, but our own arrogance as outsiders claiming to better understand an insular world than the very people inhabiting it. This is a very, very dangerous angle to adopt, because for one, it’s extremely patronizing, but more dangerously, we’re essentially honoring ourselves with the modern equivalent to Kipling’s infamous status he ascribed to the European race, i.e. the white-man’s burden.
Spoiler alert, everyone but Justine dies in The Green Inferno. The bleeding irony to the film happens when the students’ plane crashes into the Amazon, and the Americans get caged by the very people they came there to save, the indigenous cannibals. And one by one, the Americans are picked off and brutally torn in pieces, eaten by the tribespeople, woman, elderly, and children all guilelessly partaking in the feast. In another twist of irony, Alejandro admits that his whole mission to scare off developers is motivated by financial rewards from another development company, who merely wanted to swoop in once the competition was scared away. This duplicitous motivation is akin to the incognito capitalism of our times, where corporations claim to be different because they support humanitarian causes, when in fact, this is simply a guise exploiting our consciences (see Adam Knows Everything’s video on the hypocrisy of Tom’s shoes https://youtu.be/hX0g66MWbrk).
Overall, I’m giving The Green Inferno a poor rating. Other than some beautifully done death scenes, Eli Roth doesn’t bring anything new to an already very limiting sub genre, the Americans-dropped-into-the-Amazon-movie. And the film also lacks in serious insights. Bret Easton Ellis praised Roth’s satire of “snowflake millennials,” some ideas of which I also share. But these ideas are becoming old hat. Just as watching a mid-2000s speech by Charles Dawkins or Michael Moore makes you cringe, and just as the opposition to political correctness by flamboyant iconoclasts like Donald Trump or Milo Yiannopoulos has recently become flattened by all their babble, so too have Roth’s ideas become unoriginal. And even worse, I feel like Roth’s in-your-face style does a very poor job at translating them to an audience. After all, if social criticism isn’t subtlety woven into the plot, but is rather oozing all over a film or book, it becomes like trying to convey current events through tabloid journalism. It’s not very a effective or lasting method.