There’s a nihilistic quality to director Greg McLean’s previous work, including the Wolf Creek series and last year’s The Belko Experiment. So when we hear that he’s made a survival tale set in the Bolivian jungle, we think we know what that movie is. Jungle is not that movie.
Of course, the true story, based on Yossi Ghinsberg’s Lost in the Jungle, is one of horror and trauma, the most extreme battle between man and nature that we can imagine. But it’s also an inspiring story of faith, and loyalty, and the ineffable resilience of the human spirit. (But don’t fret, horror fans. Above almost all else, Jungle is very, very gross.)
In 1981, 21-year-old Israeli student Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) rejects his father’s path for him (law school, a lucrative career as an attorney, a family), instead "desperate to escape the well-worn path." He travels to South America and meets two friends: teacher Marcus (Joel Jackson) and photographer Kevin (Alex Russell). The three men have adventures in La Paz, Bolivia, but Yossi dreams of exploring the uncharted areas of the Amazon rainforest. He meets Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), an Austrian adventurer who proposes a guided trip through the jungle in search of gold and indigenous tribes, and through much coaxing, Yossi convinces Marcus and Kevin to join them.
The first several days of the trip go relatively smoothly, though Marcus isn’t accustomed to roughing it and grows steadily weaker, to the resentment of the eager Yossi and Kevin. After disagreement about whether to continue the trek on foot - slower, but safer - or on raft, the four men split up. Yossi and Kevin continue alone on the raft despite Karl’s warnings, and it’s such a manifestly bad idea that when they almost instantaneously meet with disaster, the audience can't help but nod at the inevitability of it all.
Sure enough, on their second day on the raft, Yossi and Kevin are sucked into truly treacherous white water rapids, a terrifying scene that McLean assured us during the Q&A was nearly as terrifying to film. Yossi and Kevin are split apart, and Yossi spends the next three weeks lost in the Bolivian jungle, trying to survive without friends, supplies or navigational tools.
Radcliffe is astonishing in the role. He transforms himself over the course of the film from a cocky, gregarious charmer to an emaciated, desperate man who surrenders all he has to a higher power in his fight for survival. But it’s no showboaty Revenant role, as the most powerful moments in Radcliffe’s performance are also the smallest: his eyes crinkle with gratitude as a butterfly lands on his hand, he whispers to the thin branch he uses to pull himself out of a life-threatening bog, "You will hold."
The trials Yossi suffers are so extreme - sinking in the bog, digging a worm out of his own head, eating monkeys to fight starvation, facing down a hungry jaguar - that they feel like they must be invented, but the simple truth is that they all happened. Ghinsberg’s journey feels impossible, larger than life, stranger than fiction, but McLean and screenwriter Justin Monjo show utter fidelity to this insane tale, understanding that to bury Ghinsberg’s trials in Hollywood hyperbole is to weaken the power of his story.
Jungle is a gorgeous film, with sweeping, spectacular landscapes filmed in Colombia and colorful deference to the majesty of nature. The sound design nods to the screaming noise of the jungle, confrontations between predators and prey, colossal bugs and oppressive rain. In some ways, Jungle makes a lot of sense as programming for a horror festival. Ghinsberg lived through some deeply disgusting ordeals, and the camera never shies away from them. But the heart of this story is not horror but hope, a beautiful reminder that faith - in anything, be that religion or our friends or our own fortitude - is our strongest tool for survival.