‘The Green Inferno’
Director: Eli Roth
Stars: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Eli Roth gets a bad rap. At heart he delivers exactly the kind of tough genre fare that rankles proprieters of good taste only to get reclaimed as classics later. He cares about presentation: His shot compositions are assured and he understands pacing and escalation. Every part of his films is thought-out. And he carefully laces his films with satire, some of it sharp, some of it reactionary and bro-ish, but all of it, like it or not, betraying a vision and a personality. “The Green Inferno,” the first film he’s directed since 2008’s “Hostel Part II” — and delayed a year, arriving in theaters mere weeks before his subsequent film, the very different “Knock Knock” — is his cannibal movie, and it holds its own in a sometimes dubious genre, even as it quietly avoids some of its inherent, queasy problems.

The biggest of those is how to portray savage natives without being xenophobic, if not racist. “The Green Inferno” gets this out of the way right off the bat. The opening finds a bulldozer leveling the Peruvian jungle, mere feet from native tribesmen. They’re not subtitled, and therefore mysterious Others, which is usually an issue, but we understand the real villains are callous businesspeople hoping to wipe out what remains of the non-civilized planet. When the tribesfolk get their mitts on our heroes — a cadre of Columbia University do-gooders, who’ve in fact come down there to protest for their survival — we understand that it’s a misunderstanding. “They think we’re the enemy,” one of them says, clad in one of the workers’ jackets that they wore for their stunt then neglected to take off.

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Some of them will be cooked, eaten and even worn as clothes, but not before being hacked up alive while howling — sights Roth delivers for requisite gorehound delectation. But though the tribesfolk are scary, there’s a respect. Roth even includes a scene of women signing a song as they lovingly prepare appendages, filmed plainly, as though they were simply husking corn. The film’s take on the victims is a bit more dicey. Roth clearly sees the students as delusional, fatuous, young. Our protagonist, Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s real-life wife and a pretty good actress and expert freaker-outer), is spoiled but ultimately sweet, drawn to a group of environmentalists mainly because their leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), is a scruffy Chilean dreamboat who says things like, “Don’t think. Act.”

Roth’s contempt is palpable, though he doesn’t treat it as fun or enjoyable or even as a sick kind of retribution as his noble but stupid heroes become cannibal chow, if they’re not speared to death, get a tree in the kisser during a plane crash or, arguably worst of all, have their bones broken before being fed to freaky ants. Roth’s “Hostel” films helped usher in the dodgy term “torture porn,” but he cares for characters when they endure pain, his cameras dwelling on the suffering and the panic of people about to meet a horrible end. His worldview is knotty and complex, not black-and-white and retrograde. He makes fun of the activists, but also makes fun of the people who make fun of them, having Justine’s stoner roommate say “Activism is so f—ing gay” and later make a Jewish joke then say that’s kosher because she’s Jewish. The only mostly likable people are Justine and the cannibals, who have a way of life that’s under attack, and whose appetites are horrific to civilized people but in a way that forces us to question our own cloistered worldview.

That may be assuming too much thought for a cannibal movie, and especially one that’s not above some truly dumb strokes. Speaking of which, at one point a character, out of nowhere, and for reasons that are almost sort of explained, starts masturbating in the cage in front of everyone. One character gets a nasty case of diarrhea in close confines and with no available toilet. The part where one guy (Daryl Sabara) gets the cannibals high, only for it to backfire in a perhaps too easy way, almost gets a pass, if only because it’s such an obvious gag that almost certainly exists nowhere else in the cannibal movie canon. These reflect the less refined side of Roth’s tastes, which is fine, as no one’s looking for good taste in a movie in which a poor dude watches as a woman chief lovingly slurps down his tongue as though it was an oyster. But there is a kind of refinement, and an awareness that even the genre’s magnum opus, Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust,” is, like “The Green Inferno,” a lot more sly and self-aware than a movie that just asks one to drool or wince at a form of food porn.

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