Director: Greg McLean
Writer(s): Yossi Ghinsberg (book), Justin Monjo (screenplay)
Release Date: 20 October, 2017
From one true tale of survival and determination in an unforgiving environment to another, Jungle is the real-life story of Israeli explorer Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), who, in the early 80s, found himself lost in the deepest wilds of Bolivia. This is only a slightly better film than 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain, but it at least has the good sense to leverage the considerable talents for gore possessed by Aussie horror specialist Greg McLean, who directs a screenplay adapted by Justin Monjo from Ghinsberg’s 2006 bestselling memoir, Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Survival.
McLean did Wolf Creek, right?
He did, and Jungle has more in common with that 2005 breakout than you might expect. The setup sees Ghinsberg rejecting his middle-class parents’ expectations of college education in Tel Aviv in favour of a year-long sightseeing excursion through the psychotropic nightscapes of the uncharted Bolivian jungle. He quickly befriends a bespectacled Swiss teacher, Marcus (Joel Jackson), and a rugged American photographer, Kevin (Alex Russell), who is famous among the backpacking community for presumably being a rugged American photographer. This trio is psychologically disparate, but form a tight unit rather quickly – relationships in films like this one all play on fast-forward.
Besides, Monjo doesn’t seem overly concerned with the ins and outs of character motivation anyway. The opening frames feature Ghinsberg’s loquacious voiceover, which establishes that Radcliffe can pull off a serviceable Israeli accent, but the device is summarily abandoned soon after. These early scenes have the taut minimalism of a sleazier, more contrived genre picture of a type that McLean would be better-suited to, and it’s a good fit for Jungle, at least until it starts to lose its bearings.
Which is when?
Mostly when Ghinsberg finds himself alone in the jungle, lost, starving, injured and terrified, which is when the film starts to morph into a tropical Deliverance, albeit one with somewhat less squealing. Before that, though, the three would-be adventurers are swayed into an off-piste trek through the unmapped undergrowth where, apparently, vast Inca sites and primitive tribes are to be found. Their guide is an enigmatic outdoorsman, Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), a nakedly menacing trail-leader whose gung-ho spirit isn’t contagious enough to prevent the physical and emotional strain of the journey from unravelling the group. Injuries are sustained, bonds are broken, and parasitic worms are embedded in foreheads.
It isn’t, but Karl’s foggy motivations remain Jungle’s primary source of tension for as long as he’s around, and after circumstance takes him elsewhere, McLean’s willingness to vividly torment his hero is the only thing that gives the film any kind of edge. Ghinsberg is subjected to the creepiest and crawliest of the jungle’s nightlife, but it’s all far too drawn out to be truly effective beyond facile unpleasantness, and the fact the narrative is based on an autobiography saps the horrors of their tension. The nastiness is the only thing that Ghinsberg – both literally and figuratively – can sink his teeth into.
How’s Daniel Radcliffe?
Very good, especially considering he’s forced to navigate internal digressions into clipped backstory and hallucinatory fantasy. He’s sporting a scraggly beard but still the face and body of a Hogwarts first-year, but his suffering is credible, and the wavering of his addled psyche is bettered by his effort, however superficial his delusions might be.
Despite being too long by about 20 minutes and fraught with narrative and character blunders, Jungle is an undeniable technical achievement. The jungles of Bolivia are convincing despite not actually being the jungles of Bolivia – the film was shot in Colombia and Queensland, but once you’ve seen a jungle you’ve seen a jungle, I guess – and the score, courtesy of Johnny Klimek, weaves indigenous acoustic instrumentation into more conventional sonic clichés. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio captures the verdant foliage with enough flair to sell an audience on its hidden horrors; the only problem is that by the time he really gets to show off the landscape, you’ve had more than enough of it.
Like most jungles, this one is beautiful, but savage and untamed and stuffed with coiled menaces. Wary travellers would do well to avoid it.
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