Synopsis – A group of friends join a guide for a trek into the Bolivian jungle, searching for an Indian village. The men soon realize that the jungle is a difficult place to be.
My Take – What if you are stranded on an unknown platform all alone, with nothing much to survive on, just basic survival instincts, all the while slowly losing your sanity? Anybody who has lost their bearings on a hike for even a moment can understand the heart pounding panic portrayed in the film, along with the delicate state ones friendship might be when taking on nature’s harshness. Here, Australian director Greg McLean, best-known for his grueling outback chiller Wolf Creek (2005), gives an uncanny account of Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli adventurer who, as a young man back in December 1981, was stranded in an uncharted part of the Bolivian Amazon jungle for three weeks by himself and miraculously survived to write a best-selling book on which this film is based upon. There were several things which drew me into watching this film, one was the man vs. nature scenario which when done well can be immensely exciting to watch. In recent times we have had many good examples of this such as Everest, The Grey and The Revenant, another big draw was of course Daniel Radcliffe, who has now proven beyond doubt that he has long moved past from his role of the young wizard which turned him into a worldwide sensation, who obviously once again takes on an impressive and commendable physical transformation. While this film does glaringly lack the flair and depth of feeling that defined Radcliffe‘s previous stroll through the great outdoors in last year’s miraculously inventive Swiss Army Man, it’s somehow even more disgusting, considering the film had Radcliffe playing a corpse whose constantly farts.
The story follows Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), an Israeli explorer who lands in La Paz, Bolivia, to prove to himself that he is living his life to the fullest. It’s here where the backpacking adventurer hits it off with another fellow adventurer, Marcus (Joel Johnson) from Switzerland and soon the two connect with one of Marcus’ friends, Kevin (Alex Russell), a traveling freelance American photographer, looking for off the grid locales. The three hit it off and find themselves wandering around, getting to know the village as they decide what they’re next journey will be. The trip becomes more exciting when Yossi is approached by a fellow explorer, a charming but deeply untrustworthy Austrian, Karl Ruprecter (Thomas Kretschmann), who offers him and his friends the trip of a lifetime – a guided tour through uncharted jungle along the Amazon right there in Bolivia at $50 a head. They may even find some gold too! An enthusiastic Yossi is immediately sold, but it takes some persuading to get his skeptical friends on board, especially the hesitant Marcus. After convincing Kevin that he’s bound to get some prime National Geographic shots, Marcus caves and the trio are off via plane to the unknown with Karl in the lead. It doesn’t take long for it to become clear that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea; after all, none of these guys have ever traveled together before. It’s a challenge enough for their location be a looming unknown, but add to that the big question of who these guys (including Yossi) are and what they’re capable of, and doubt starts to set in, as their trip slowly becomes something that is less fun and exciting, but more real and dangerous. Director Greg McLean, who’s known for his vacation-gone-awry horror flick like Wolf Creek (and its sequel), wields the microphone to narrate the real-life account of a group of backpackers getting lost in the wilderness of the Amazon (in Bolivia). The film has a lot going for it, with a decent cast (lead by a fairly unrecognizable Radcliffe who’s accent is solid about 80% of the time), fantastic cinematography, and what should be a compelling enough survival story. You can tell the survival part is what the film wants to get on about because the first 10 minutes alone feel like they were cut down from at least a half-hour’s worth of character and relationship establishment. What runs throughout the film is this underlying study of doubt – how we internalize it and how, along with fear, it can taint our relationships. That’s what stands out amid all the harrowing and unsettling moments in the film. That and how this story serves as cautionary tale to never go on an uncharted jungle excursion with people you’ve just met. The film does succeed by pitting the group up against some devastating forces of nature, whether it is a makeshift riverboat raft or disgustingly painful looking feet sores on the weakest link of the bunch. Also, considering that there is so little character development outside the minor touches here and there for Yossi, the film actually becomes far more enjoyable and intense once he gradually gets separated from the rest of the pack until he is all by his lonesome. The film gets at something personal and reflective when it’s just Yossi, the natural elements of the titular jungle and the viewer. He has to scale rocky walls, deal with animal predators and continuously find shelter from the pouring rain. Such isolation, separated from human interaction, helps us develop a better understanding of where Yossi is at internally and gives us a chance to wonder what we’d do in his situation. It’s mostly during this time that writer Justin Mono and director McLean insert Yossi’s flashback memories of his time with his family, particularly how his father viewed his decision to go off and travel, images which intertwine with Yossi’s own self-doubt and desperation he’s experiencing during the stress of dehydration, starvation and exhaustion. There are also some fascination and surreal hallucinations that are understandable considering the character’s delirium and loneliness.
It’s in these moments where we also see Yossi willing himself to move on and live, despite seeing where he’s messed up, and in turn forcing himself to literally be the hero of his own story. As a director, Greg McLean does a tremendous job of putting us in Yossi’s shoes, as he faces starvation, quick sand, skin worms, flashbacks and hallucinations. The film is most effective when it plays to its director’s strengths and keys into the violence of a place that has no interest in accommodating human life — Karl’s shiftiness aside, the Amazon unburdens McLean of the need for shotguns or serial killers, as none of those things are necessary in a verdant hells cape full of fire ants, brutal rapids, and hidden jaguars. It’s unclear what exactly is eating the flesh off Marcus’ gooey feet, but it can’t be good and let’s not talk about the worm that hatches from the bump on Yossi’s head, okay? In the most gruesome scene, a prosthetic bump on his forehead is revealed to contain a large parasitic worm, which the real-life Yossi had to cut out with a penknife. What I found refreshing was the way the ordeal was interrupted by amusing dream sequences and Kevin’s search for his lost friend (once I learned the whole story my attitude to him softened considerably!). In today’s films we’re used to this type of subject being shown in an unrelenting and immersive style. Director McLean provides respite for the audience and in my view this works more effectively as you can process what you’re seeing well. It reinforces the idea that hope exists, even in the bleakest of situations. How else could you survive? Coming to the film’s shortcomings, for example, the film does take a while to get going and there is a lot of introductory scenes where we are treated to some stunning jungle shots of the Amazon and for the most part these scenes to add value to the film and show the extent and vastness of the rain forests. After a while though it did start to feel like the scenes had been overused and that better placement could have helped with the overall dramatization of the plot as was done with Everest. There are also several scenes in the film that felt like they could have been left out altogether, for instance the hallucination about the native tribal girl (who looked distinctively western) or another one showing a buffalo in a fast food store. They do nothing to enhance the story or feel of the film and simply feel like they are there to pad the film out. Among the characters, other than Yossi, unfortunately none are fleshed out well enough. Quite a lot is unraveled in the first half hour: the blokes meet, they make merry, and in no time, they’re in the middle of an Amazonian voyage and emotional rifts have slowly begun to show. As we’d expect, things don’t go according to plan (they never do, do they?) and the gang splits up. While Karl’s character is shrouded in mystery, the supposed new friends of Yossi appear half-baked but are saved somewhat by the Alex Russell and Joel Jackson‘s pretty-decent portrayals. But without a doubt, its Daniel Radcliffe’s strong performance that ties the film together as the film assuredly rests on his shoulders almost throughout the entire third act. Here, Radcliffe, summoning a solid Israeli accent, obligingly goes through the wringer, evidently connecting with the primal emotions of survival, and immerses himself entirely into the physical demands of this role and the result is a traumatic journey from which it’s tough to see any positive outcome. In a supporting role, Thomas Kretschmann with his on point performance also helps to elevate the status of this film. On the whole, ‘Jungle’ is an entertaining story of human will and perseverance that despite a few faults manages to be as thrilling as its source material.
Directed – Greg McLean
Rated – R
Run Time – 115 minutes