The Green Inferno is the big screen’s niftiest political allegory in a long time. Who would have expected a critique of that silly, useless Occupy movement before Hollywood got around to valorizing the renegades?
Writer-director Eli Roth puts a politically facile Columbia University student, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), in the midst of a Peruvian jungle, where her attempt at “protecting a tribe from civilization” means chaining herself to a tree to prevent corporate developers from bulldozing the tribesmen’s village. Justine is not prepared for either geopolitical interference or the tribe’s cannibalistic rituals. This modern Little Nell (a Daddy’s Girl whose father is a United Nations bigwig) finds herself stripped down and laid out for female circumcision.
Sound gross? Roth specializes in gross (he’s known as the torture-porn schlockmeister of Hostel and Hostel 2), but this time his Grand Guignol contains a rude political message. The Green Inferno pinpoints the foolish dishonesty and arrogant hypocrisy of those protesters and social activists who claim they can change the world by being political agitators. Freshman Justine typically develops a crush on Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the latest Columbia campus rebel. “He’s creepy and charismatic,” she says. “The two go hand in hand,” her best friend warns. At his most mischievous, Roth works the plot toward that female-genital-mutilation scare, which takes Justine far beyond the moralistic punishment in movies like Friday the 13th: Roth dares to threaten the sexual privilege of the liberal political class.
Set in a glaringly verdant jungle (meant to evoke Werner Herzog’s art-movie travelogues), the film’s symbolic inferno refers to the maelstrom when sanctimony meets the real world. Roth satirizes all the upstarts who talk about “colonial inequality” and “sustaining the ecology,” yet have no thought for consequences. Satirical audacity like The Green Inferno’s was last seen in Larry Cohen’s brilliant, non-partisan alarums like the blaxploitation Black Caesar and the apocalyptic Q, the Winged Serpent. Roth’s exploitation-movie plot extends the endangered-American-youth ploy of the Taken films (Luc Besson’s popular action-movie allegories of post-9/11 global politics). Roth is also more honest about liberal sanctimony (and hypocrisy) than Kenneth Lonergan, whose 2011 Margaret offered an apologia for the self-absorption of New York’s Upper West Side elite.
#share#Horror and action fans usually think themselves liberal, but Roth’s film (a Chilean co-production) pushes them to a troubling realization about the untrustworthy methods of “progressives.” Alejandro heads an acronymic organization, the Activist Change Team, and he rages to Justine, “This is how the real world works. Everything is connected. You think the U.S. government didn’t let 9/11 happen?” Justine falls for it until her own well-being is put at risk. Her class of uninformed Millennial dissidents take for granted the bourgeois protection that they blithely betray. Roth contrasts their white privilege with Peruvian tribes who paint themselves vermillion (or blood red) and live solely by appetite. The film’s slightly racist view of the Third World is balanced by its ruthless reproof of the First World’s shallow ideologues. (The mauling of the students suggests an hysterical Occupy intervention.)
During the past couple of years of worldwide progressive protests, the mainstream media have avoided making any critique. But look how Roth exposes the mischief-makers when Alejandro tells his troops to don masks: “We’re One Face. Now stand up and make history.” It’s like those anarchists wearing Guy Fawkes masks at the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, whom the mainstream media refuse to investigate.
#related#When the privileged Justine escapes from the psychedelically colored cannibals only by being painted white, the joke may not be to everyone’s taste, but the skin-of-her-teeth metaphor exemplifies Roth’s B-movie gallows humor. He really sticks it to the Saul Alinsky anarchists when Alejandro paraphrases Alinsky: “The threat of embarrassment . . . You must shame them. That’s the only way people change their behavior. Once they know they’re on camera, everything changes.” This summarizes, not humane political principles, but the social-media fascism that the news media glorify as a “movement.”
The Green Inferno’s harshest critique comes in Alejandro’s rant, “Don’t think — Act.” It’s a perfect parody of today’s progressive idiocy. Roth usually imitates Tarantino’s sadism. (Roth played an American Jewish GI who was among those who carved a swastika on a German soldier’s forehead in Inglourious Basterds — although who can determine either his or Tarantino’s personal politics?) But Roth’s outrageousness in The Green Inferno may rattle his target audience and surprise the rest. He’s scabrous and nervy enough to satirize the bastard children of Sixties revolution; The Green Inferno is worthy of B-movie genius Larry Cohen’s bastard son.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.