New York,August9:More than a decade after premiering Wolf Creek in Melbourne, director Greg McLean has returned to the festival that made his name with Jungle. Based on the memoir by Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli man who got himself lost in the Bolivian jungle in 1981, the new film apes the structure of McLean’s horror breakout almost exactly, with three backpackers whose hedonism is rudely interrupted — this time by red ants and rapids instead of an Outback serial killer.
Wolf Creek riffed on real-life figures but was a work of queasily convincing fiction, whereas Jungle claims to be a somber recounting of events, though it has none of the idiosyncratic detail of real life.
Fronted by a committed Daniel Radcliffe sporting a bushy beard and creditable Israeli accent, this is a survival thriller without much in the way of you-know-what, and seems destined to land in the Amazonian bog into which films that satisfy neither grindhouse nor art house are sucked.
Screenwriter Justin Monjo (Spear) kicks things off with a short-lived voiceover in which Yossi describes coming to Bolivia to escape the grind of an ordinary life. Landing in La Paz, he hooks up with Marcus (Joel Jackson), a smiling Swiss teacher, and Kevin (Chronicle star Alex Russell), an American photographer with dreams of getting his pictures in National Geographic.
That ambition is one reason the otherwise skeptical American agrees to make a trek into uncharted territory with Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), a mysterious guide who follows Yossi down a narrow laneway to ask if he’s an American, in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hostel sequel.
Early scenes like this one feel hurried over by editor Sean Lahiff, with some — such as the first exchange between Marcus and Yossi — frankly inaudible, swallowed by the score from McLean regular Johnny Klimek and presented as part of one long montage.
The trek soon tests the loyalty of the new friends, with the gentle Marcus emerging as this story’s Ned Beatty character in Deliverance. Slowed down by his horribly blistered feet, the schoolteacher’s buddies begin to see him as an irritant. Told they should turn back or remain where they are until Marcus can walk, they come up with a third option: They’ll make a raft and sail down the rapids.
Kevin and Karl almost come to blows after an aborted test run down the river, and Yossi contrives to get rid of the dead weight, convincing Marcus to continue on foot with the German while he and Kevin continue downstream. Radcliffe leans into Yossi’s callousness, but he’s also calculating, sensitive enough to make his friend believe the plan to ditch him was his own idea.
Shooting in Queensland, McLean and his cinematographer Stefan Duscio (who also shot 2013’s superior survival pic Canopy) employ lots of jagged handheld during the film’s centerpiece rafting sequences, which are over almost before they’ve begun, with the makeshift vessel dashed against a rock and Yossi swept away. The film’s second half becomes a familiar series of close shaves, with Yossi battling creepy crawlies as well as the weather, starvation and, in a series of ill-judged dream sequences and flashbacks, his own hallucinations. One of them sees Radcliffe, now his recognizable shaven self, eating a burger in a fast-food restaurant; another has him at the dinner table back in Tel Aviv, enduring an earful from his disappointed father (Jacek Koman).
None of these discursions illuminate much of anything, and their insertion feels like bet-hedging by filmmakers intent on ginning up Yossi’s three-week slog with embellishing material. But it’s Radcliffe’s trials that deliver the film’s most vivid images. Some of them are delightfully gross, as when Yossi cuts a live worm out of a wound on his forehead, or eats a couple of eggs about to hatch. In scenes straight out of Apocalypto, he faces off with a predator up a tree and later pulls himself out of a bog with the aid of a particularly sturdy frond.
The swiftly rising Russell makes a solid fist of what he’s got to play, which isn’t much, while Jackson imbues the bespectacled Marcus with touching shades of self-awareness. And Radcliffe, in a performance that deserved a better vehicle, goes from a 21-year-old full of rash certainty to one full of regret, pulling off blood-caked socks while weeping an apology to his departed friend.
Production companies: Babber Films, Cutting Edge Group
Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Lily Sullivan, Joel Jackson, Thomas Kretschmann, Alex Russell, Yasmin Kassim
Director: Greg McLean
Screenwriter: Justin Monjo
Producers: Todd Fellman, Mike Gabrawy, Gary Hamilton, Mark Lazarus, Dana Lustig, Greg McLean
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: Matthew Putland
Editor: Sean Lahiff
Composer: Johnny Klimek
Casting: Susanne Groen, Ben Parkinson
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival