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Eli Roth’s Society of the Spectacle

Eli Roth’s Society of the Spectacle

With Thanksgiving, a titan of horror proves he’s also one of America’s most savage social critics. 

The key scene in Eli Roth’s latest horror movie, Thanksgiving, has nothing to do with a murderous Pilgrim shoving corn holders in a teenager’s ears or baking a victim alive in an industrial oven after dressing her like a turkey. It’s a moment of seeming levity in which a nameless high-school jock with flowing locks reads from a paper in English class.

He’s nearing the crescendo as he proudly proclaims that he just can’t celebrate Thanksgiving anymore in these times, especially as a citizen of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The group of girls surrounding him coo. He tears up and wipes his eyes with his shirt, revealing his washboard abs. 

It’s the exact type of America-as-oppressor platitude that public school youth face daily. But the scene also tells us that the kids are smarter than we think. They know how to cull favor by regurgitating the talking points for authority figures like this class’s teacher, who, as the film later reveals, runs a blog about native extermination as a hobby.

In a film of ruthless satire and utter carnage, Roth never absolves viewers for their sense that they are above it all.  It’s what makes him one of the best American filmmakers working today. It’s also largely why, until Thanksgiving, he’s never been taken as seriously as he should be. 

Over the past two weeks, Thanksgiving has proved both a critical darling and the sleeper hit of the holiday season. With an 83% RottenTomatoes score, critics have somehow pulled off the hat trick of lauding its alleged anti-capitalist message while making sure everyone knows they’re just genre slumming, a tactic best typified by Jesse Hassenger‘s review of the film for Decider: “Is the rapaciousness of capitalism enabled by the colonization of the Americas now returning to devour itself? Eh, it’s mostly just a masked psycho – but more care has been put into the film than simply plugging in an electric carving knife and turning it loose.” 

Much to Hassenger’s chagrin, Roth has spent his career proving that he’s smarter than his critics. His breakout film, Hostel, is responsible for inspiring the moniker “torture porn” despite remaining the definitive statement on America’s worst neocon tendencies in the Gulf II era. The backlash to the movie and its 2007 sequel were so strong that Roth has never really had the career he deserved, releasing underseen films like the Gothic children’s movie The House with the Clock in Its Walls and the Bruce Willis remake of Death Wish in 2018 between producing horror history documentaries, ghost hunting shows, and Shark Week specials for Discovery and AMC. The critical class’s engineered failure of Hostel: Part 2 in 2007 meant an eight-year hiatus that finally ended in 2015 when he released the equally brilliant Amazon cannibal tale The Green Inferno, a brash cinematic statement about the arrogance of social justice idealism mirroring the savior complexes it so abhors. 

Roth’s greatest gift has always been his knack for audience implication, an ability to critique the consumption of the violence that has become his hallmark. His films have long dealt with American entitlement from Hostel’s brotastic backpackers to The Green Inferno’s idealistic environmental activists. On the surface, a movie about a killer Pilgrim caters directly to the “stolen land” crowd. But Roth undermines such obvious symbolism by methodically demonstrating the flaws in such blatantly self-assured ideological stances.

Roth is also one of the few filmmakers in an overtly politicized Hollywood who takes care to craft dimensional characters, a preoccupation that sets him apart from the majority of his peers–whether those in the realm of horror or gunning for awards prestige.

Like his previous work, Thanksgiving seemingly adheres to genre formula. A year after a Black Friday riot at a local box store claims the lives of three locals, a killer dressed as Plymouth Colony’s first governor, John Carver, embarks on a killing spree to hold the instigators accountable. In addition to overwhelmed Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), a negligent security guard (Tim Dillon), and a handful of greedy shoppers, Carver’s intended victims also include Jessica (Nell Verlaque), the daughter of WrightMart founder Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman) and the group of friends she let into the store early that sparked the deadly trampling.

Taking a page from Scream, the film finds Newlon teaming up with Jessica, her friends, and her ex-boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), whose hand injury at the riot abruptly ended his budding baseball career, to uncover Carver’s identity as the bodies drop in Thanksgiving-themed ways. There’s an electric carver to the chest! A meat tenderizer to the head! Even a walk-in freezer door to the face in the greatest perversion of A Christmas Story ever put to film.

Its nods to Scream aside, Thanksgiving boasts the most appealing and fully realized teen victims in a slasher movie since Wes Craven’s now-classic that revolutionized contemporary horror. Though the film also teeters between abjection and belly laughs, it makes its deaths mean something beyond sheer depravity (a scene in which an in-shock sports star cradles his freshly disemboweled girlfriend is one of the most effective moments of any movie this year). Even in a social-issues minded horror movie where the greedy capitalist should get his just desserts, Roth and cowriter Jeff Rendell, actively resist caricature, all the while toying with audience expectations. 

Such makes it all the more frustrating that even Thanksgiving’s raves fail to see the film’s nuance. It’s less an anti-capitalist diatribe than an interrogation of fraying traditions and a disappearing middle class under siege. Roth doesn’t dismiss his Black Friday shoppers as greedy consumers. He has the foresight to understand that in an America with an elite telling us our holiday dinners are the cheapest in years while thinking we’re too stupid to read receipts, Black Friday’s mobs are the last grasp at the American Dream.

John Carver’s rage is clearly misdirected, but he has no other choice. He’s not the real villain of this horrorshow. That’s a title reserved for the bloodlusting viewers of the riot’s viral videos and the local media who gleefully report every bloody detail moments after each kill. 

It’s also a title reserved for us: the viewers who seek out violence as a diversion. The ones who publish their Diet Marxist readings of horror movies to assert their own superiority. As always, Roth is unafraid to expose the dark underpinnings of our faltering American experiment. And the American cinema is better for it, whether or not he gets the credit he deserves.

Thanksgiving is now playing in theaters.