With ‘Jungle’, director Greg McLean does for the Bolivian wilderness what he did for Outback Australia with his debut ‘Wolf Creek’. Based on Yossi Ghinsberg’s autobiographical book, ‘Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Survival’, the film tells the epic true story of Yossi’s survival of three weeks lost in the depths of the Amazon.
The first third of the film details how Yossi (Daniel Radcliffe) ended up alone in the wilds of South America. While backpacking through the vast continent, Yossi meets fellow travellers Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson), a Swiss teacher on sabbatical, and Kevin Gale (Alex Russell), an American photographer. They become fast friends. When charismatic Austrian adventurer Karl Ruchprecter (Thomas Kretschmann) approaches Yossi and offers to show him the “real” South America, landscapes and tribes still untouched by civilization. After Karl’s confidence and experience wins over the initially sceptical Marcus and Kevin, the trio head off into the jungle with a rudimentary map, a few days’ supplies, one shotgun and one machete.
As Karl tells them, “the jungle shows us what we really are.” A few days into their trek, tempers are beginning to fray as food and energy levels are running low and the threats of the jungle are becoming more apparent. When the three tourists briefly lose track of Karl, their hopelessness is quickly revealed, and tensions between Marcus and Kevin bubble to the surface. However, they soon reunite with Karl and spend an idyllic night in a friendly village, experiencing the untouched paradise that Karl promised them. Their concerns assuaged, the group heads off into the verdant undergrowth again.
When an injury splits the group in two, Yossi and Kevin decide to raft downriver to their destination, a village called Rurrenabaque. After a perilous white-water rafting sequence, Yossi and Kevin are also torn apart, and Yossi’s solo struggles begin, facing weeks struggling through the titular landscape. Even after leaving the treacherous rapids behind, numerous dangers still await Yossi, including but not limited to jaguars, poisonous snakes, insects and spiders, quicksand and starvation.
It strikes me that white-water rafting is something of a wilderness film hallmark, yet director Greg McLean has managed to make it feel truly fresh and frightening. The two rafting sequences are almost unbearably tense, and I often found myself holding my breath, mouth completely dry. In contrast with the deliberately brisk build-up, the time that the film spends dwelling on the dangers allows each to make their impact on the viewer. Knowing that Yossi must survive his ordeal (he wrote the source material after all) neither dampens the visceral fear that the film repeatedly taps into, nor lessens the intensely emotional impact of his perseverance. That Yossi’s odyssey is in turns harrowing and breathtakingly thrilling despite his assured endurance is testament to McLean and his crew. The film may only be M rated, but it’s far more frightening than ‘Jigsaw’, an MA15+ horror film that I also reviewed this week.
In what is essentially a four-hander, the leads are excellent, particularly Kretschmann. A bearded Daniel Radcliffe has well and truly shed his Harry Potter youthfulness, and manages the Israeli accent well. He is asked to carry most of the film as Yossi battles the elements and the environment alone, and he is more than capable of shouldering the demands of the role. If a few of the picture’s more introspective moments don’t quite come off, I’d say that these are more indicative of the screenplay’s overreliance on the character giving himself pep talks. Australian Alex Russell plays Kevin as a man of action, full of bravado and exuding the confidence of a veteran backpacker. His tension with both Karl and Marcus gives the first act a sense of unease that keeps you on edge even through their more harmonious moments. Fellow Aussie Joel Jackson also impresses as the tragic figure with “the heart of a poet and the soul of a saint”. Watching Marcus’ soft-spoken exterior crack under the stress of their experience is especially painful, and the way that he clings to Kretschmann’s character is deeply disquieting. Despite the best efforts of his young co-stars, Kretschmann is the standout as Karl. Not knowing the details of the story but expecting a character like John Jarratt’s psychopathic murderer in ‘Wolf Creek’, I was impressed by the ambiguity with which Kretschmann and the filmmakers approached the character. He is both threatening and charming, and I was never convinced that I had a total read of his intentions or his nature.
The film was shot between Colombia and several locations in Queensland, which convincingly double for their Bolivian cousins (even if Australian eyes may occasionally spot some more familiar vegetation). The landscapes are breathtakingly captured, and cinematographer Stefan Duscio gives the production an extremely immersive and cinematic scope. With similarly excellent thrillers ‘Berlin Syndrome’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ released this year, 2017 has been a terrific year for Australian genre cinema.
‘Jungle’ joins these releases and continues to show how excellent our film industry can be. The jungle may be just as treacherous as the competitive global film industry, but it certainly looks like Australia is in safe hands.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting