Many of the most successful entries in the man-vs.-nature genre tend to be true-life accounts, probably because there’s something especially affecting about knowing someone actually went through the ordeal you’re witnessing. Films like Into The Wild, Rescue Dawn, and Kon-Tiki derive an additional thrill from the “based on a true story” angle, the reality of the accounts inspiring a certain verisimilitude: With the artifice out of the way, there’s just a stranger-than-fiction narrative to tell.
Jungle, the new film from Australian director Greg McLean, has a hell of a tale to draw from. Former Israeli soldier Yossi Ghinsberg and two friends followed a guide into the Bolivian jungle in November 1981, only to have the group fracture; separated from the others, Ghinsberg stumbled into a harrowing ordeal of one man against the unforgiving environment. Jungle is based on Ghinsberg’s autobiography, and it’s hard to believe it took more than a decade to find its way to the big screen. His experience is packed with so many jaw-dropping moments of brutal physicality (“oh, dear god, no” is the only logical reaction to a number of scenes) that the film required little more than a straightforward rendering of the account. Unfortunately, the movie too often can’t resist leaning into the melodrama of the situation. Rather than allowing the power to come from the raw intensity of what transpired, it occasionally turns Ghinsberg’s journey into a Hollywood spectacle, making the incredible seem a little less so in the process.
No real fault should be laid at the feet of Jungle’s go-for-broke star turn, however. Despite a sometimes shaky accent, Daniel Radcliffe throws himself into the role of a stolid yet impulsive romantic with gusto, subjecting himself to the kind of full body transformations that Christian Bale sometimes undertakes, as Ghinsberg gradually becomes a gaunt and hollowed-out version of the man he was at the start of his “adventure.” While occasional and unnecessary flashbacks showcase key moments in Yossi’s life immediately preceding his departure for a year-long walkabout (he spent some time in the U.S. before decamping for his South American backpacking trip), Radcliffe convincingly portrays a man slowly stripped to his barest self, driven along by little more than a primal urge to survive.
The film is more or less broken in two, with the first hour devoted to the social dynamics between these four men that led them to hit such a contentious breaking point. (Thomas Kretschmann is especially good as the arrogant jungle guide Karl, who may or may not know as much as he claims.) The Swedish schoolteacher and American photographer who accompany Yossi on the trip are the primary source of friction, and the knowledge that something far worse is coming lends an air of foreboding to even their most positive interactions. But after the group splits, and a sudden river accident leaves Ghinsberg on his own, Jungle becomes a one-man show.
McLean is at his best when he avoids bells and whistles and focuses on creating a straightforward atmosphere of dread, as in his first two films, Wolf Creek and Rogue (or his episode of the subsequent Wolf Creek TV miniseries). And the scenes in which he stages particularly fraught incidents often have a visceral power—a mid-movie sequence where Ghinsberg tumbles into rock-filled rapids is a nerve-jangling high point. Similarly, Ghinsberg’s struggle with a parasite is one of the purest cases of gross-out body horror put on screens this year. But too often, McLean gives in to the temptation to really hammer home the emotional beats. That gratuitous impulse, whether in the form of the bombastic score or a late encounter with a butterfly that might belong better in a Disney movie, ends up weakening the movie’s potency. Still, the fundamental intensity of Ghinsberg’s story is hard to totally squander. When it doesn’t give in to the desire to be a more traditional crowd-pleaser, Jungle provides a graphic and unvarnished account of a genuinely incredible story.