Hostel. 2005. Directed & Written by Eli Roth.
Starring Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova, Jan Vlasák, Jana Kaderabkova, Jennifer Lim, Keiko Seiko, Rick Hoffman, Petr Janis, Takashi Miike, & Patrik Zigo.
Next Entertainment / Raw Nerve / International Production Company
Rated R / 94 minutes
★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Most of Eli Roth’s films are probably the ‘love them/hate them’ type. It’s hard to argue Hostel isn’t at the top of the list, likely right alongside The Green Inferno. Hostel is one of those horrors that feels on the cusp of actually saying something intelligent using all the themes swirling around in its mixing pot, but it never gets there. What the film delivers is a half-baked critique on American attitudes, as well as countless instances of homophobia and misogyny that never add to any of that critique, only serving to make us dislike the main characters with whom we’re meant to empathise and for whom we’re intended to cheer later.
The story follows two American friends—Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson)—abroad with a new Icelandic pal, Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), they met along the way. They’re seeking women and good times, so someone tells them to go to a hostel in Slovakia, where supposedly the ladies are dying to fuck Americans especially. Naturally the lads take off fast to Slovakia. It doesn’t take long for things to get strange, as the trio of pals meet odd characters wherever they go.
But the three friends start getting picked off, by god knows who, until Paxton remains the last one standing. He goes searching for answers, only to discover a horrific underbelly in this Slovakian town that runs on blood money and tourists.
Throughout Hostel, the word ‘gay’ gets thrown around like an adjective denoting something bad or weird. Hegemonic masculinity rules the film with Josh particularly struggling to act like the right kind of man (i.e. straight), or else be called “faggot.” Paxton continually drops the f-bomb. At one point he hilariously says “That‘s gay” when he’s told they’ll have roommates at the hostel, and the roommates haven’t even been gendered. He’s fine once he sees a couple half naked women are the roommates. He calls Josh a faggot, at least a couple times, and at point yells outside a bar they’ve been kicked out of: “It‘s a fucking fag fest in there.” In contrast, Oli never says anything homophobic, and has no issue showing his balls to his male friends, portraying all the homophobia coming from the Americans.
Tying into the casual homophobia of Hostel‘s American characters is their equal amount of toxic masculinity, some of which crosses over with the homophobia, as well as the misogyny we frequently see, largely again from Paxton. When Paxton and his friends are in the Red Light District they see sex workers in a window, one of whom is a bigger girl. Paxton says “that girl‘s a fucking hog.” The most interesting moment of misogyny coming out of Paxton’s toxic masculine behaviour is when the friends are at a bar in Slovakia. Josh decides to leave and go back to the hostel, when he sees Paxton across the bar, who makes a triangle symbol with his hands—calling Josh “pussy,” which he does previously verbally, but this time making a physical symbol of the vagina with his hands.
However, the best moment regarding misogyny in Hostel is when Paxton discovers Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) has been leading his friends to their deaths, and he yells at her: “You whore! You bitch!” Natalya laughs, subverting Paxton’s misogyny back onto him and, simultaneously, emasculating him by saying: “I get a lot of money for you. And that makes you my bitch.”
Eli Roth claims that Hostel was about showing the ignorance of the Americans, but the film never quite hits that mark. There’s definitely a contrast between Paxton and Josh v. Oli, specifically regarding the performance of hegemonic masculinity. But locals in Slovakia, and other non-Americans, are shown to be the ones ultimately rounding up all the meat for the slaughter. Yes, we do see Rick Hoffman as an American client of the Elite Hunting Club, yet most of the people we see killing, or involved in the whole business, are from outside of America.
The closest Roth’s film gets to actually critiquing Americans is the way we see Paxton and Josh react to non-American cultures, or when Paxton calls watching movies dubbed into the local language “fucking gay.” If Roth really wanted to actually critique American attitudes he could’ve made the Elite Hunting Club an American organisation working overseas and exploiting the local economy by using low-income people to do their dirty work.
The Bubble Gum Kids are actually what saves Hostel from being an outright xenophobic film. They’re the final line of defence that allows Paxton to escape. They’re also representative of a purer Old World, in contrast with modern America representing a corrupted modern world tainted by the horrors of capitalism. The Bubble Gum Gang are symbolic of the Old World’s history in that they work off the barter system; they don’t seek money, they only desire bubble gum, and in return they appear to offer allegiance with those who’ve given them the gum. The gang of kids, because of their use of the barter system, sit in direct opposition to the Elite Hunting Club’s status as, effectively, a capitalist death cult.
When Hostel arrived on the scene it was just a few years after 9/11 and George Bush’s administration had already started to invade Iraq on false information concerning weapons of mass destruction. People were dying, from Americans abroad to the people from Iraq and the surrounding areas they were killing. Plenty of scholars have posited that Hostel was, consciously or not, Roth’s response to the horrors Americans were seeing on a daily basis. Saw and other films labelled ‘torture porn’ have been viewed as similar responses to a post-9/11 world in which not only were Americans and Iraqis dying overseas, but American citizens were also seeing their own government resort to torture.
Although Roth intended Hostel as a critique of Americans and ignorant American attitudes, his film comes off with the American playing hero, as Jay escapes, saves a woman from further torture, and then kills one of his friends’ murderers. Roth’s alternate ending in the director’s cut is somewhat closer to an American critique, featuring Jay abducting the creepy salad man’s daughter, the final shot showing him leaving on a train with her; in this ending, at least we see Jay in a nastier light.
Still, Hostel is mostly a xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic film that encapsulated a mid-2000s frat bro attitude most of us would rather leave behind forever. The American characters do look bad and ignorant, but no deeper critique lies within. By the end, Jay’s hero status turns Americans into the victims, allowing them retributive violence by making the ‘foreigner’ the ultimate big bad of the film.