Nature is scary.
Director Greg McLean has only made six feature films, but a common theme running through most of them is the idea that nature, the elements, and the creatures moving across the earth are chomping at the bit to end your life. From the harsh Australian landscape of the Wolf Creek films to the man-eating crocodile at the heart of Rogue, McLean knows that nature is even more of a threat than other humans. Where those films dealt with psycho killers and unrealistic beasts, though, his latest reins in the over-the-top, genre-heightened dangers to deliver a true story of survival.
A true story about nature trying desperately to kill a man.
Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) has left behind his comfortable life as a middle-class college student in Israel to see the world, and after brief stints in Alaska and New York City he comes to Bolivia in search of adventure, excitement, and unforgettable experiences. He befriends two other hikers — Marcus (Joel Jackson), a kind-hearted Swiss, and Kevin (Alex Russell), an American already well-known in international backpacking circles for his adventurous spirit and accomplishments.
The trio are convinced by a charismatic stranger, Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), to let him guide them into parts of the jungle where few Westerners have set foot, and while it goes well at first their multi-day hike soon shows signs of trouble. Injury, bad weather, and confusion over what to do next sees the foursome split until Yossi is left alone — far from anywhere, with dwindling supplies, and in a world seemingly designed for death. As the days pass his chance of survival dwindles until even those still searching for him are forced to concede defeat.
As mentioned, Jungle is based a true tale, but the lack of monsters or menacing madmen doesn’t mean the film is any less harrowing for it. Raging whitewater, prowling jaguars, biting insects, quicksand, and more await Yossi in his attempt to escape the jungle, and some of his encounters with danger come paired with thrilling moments and suspenseful beats.
Justin Monjo‘s screenplay, based on Ghinsberg’s book, offers glimpses into Yossi’s pre-Bolivian life in the form of dreams and memories he experiences while slowly dying in the jungle. Each step brings some new danger, and each new threat sees him recalling a better time or the disappointment his parents felt after he announced his travel intentions. That’s the extent of the role the past has to play here, but it’s more than we get for the other three men. Some time is spent with the three new friends before they meet Karl, and while it hardly provides much in the way of character development it’s enough to offer a snapshot of their immediate personalities and highlight the thrill they each find in these travels.
We “get” the bug they have for adventure, and while movie-savvy viewers will reflexively say “no!” to Karl’s offer it’s understandable why these three competent, experienced young men say yes.
All four do good work despite the lack of real character depth, and Radcliffe convinces in moments of joy, fear, and excruciating pain. It’s Russell who stands out, though. Even as a supporting character he crafts someone whose casual confidence is dealt a series of heavy blows, and they in turn shift his persona towards concern and integrity.
McLean’s an old pro at capturing the more dangerous aspects of a landscape, but he proves himself equally adept at highlighting its beauty too. Yossi and the others bond on and off the trail as well as in small villages amid the locals, and we can’t help but see the appeal of it all. Lush jungle, stunning interactions with nature — Yossi’s moment with a swarm of butterflies lends a near-magical air to it all — and the clear glow of freedom from life’s responsibilities cast an addictive spell. These highs make the fall into chaos, panic, and possible death that much more destabilizing. Of course, none of it prepares you for the scene where Yossi finds something moving beneath the bump on his forehead.
True story or not, Jungle is a return to form for McLean whose last two features — the supernatural dud The Darkness and the one-note, James Gunn-scripted The Belko Experiment — left him out of touch with the element he’s most in tune with.
Nature’s endless desire to end mankind.