The urge for survival is strong but do you have the skills? If your phone battery died and you were stranded, could you cope? What if this was a time before mobile phones were invented? And you were in a jungle? With a head injury? And your feet were in such a state that even the most dedicated podiatrist would blurt out, “damn, those are messed up feet!” How would long could you survive?
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, 2017 movie Jungle is based on the amazing true story of Yossi Ghinsberg who was stranded in the Bolivian Amazon Jungle for over three weeks in 1981 after being separated from his friends and abandoned by the supposed guide who took them out on an expedition promising gold and indigenous tribes. This dramatic retelling of that experience reconstructs the sheer life and death balance that Ghinsberg tightrope-walked across during his time lost and alone in the Jungle.
The ‘lost, alone, and injured’ story has many touchpoints in cinema because we all love a story of defeating the odds. Movies such as Touching The Void and 127 hours covered the desperation of a crippling injury and hostile environment whereas Cast Away, dealt with learning to cope with isolation. Jungle slots nicely into this category but keeps the stress level high due to the sheer amount of threats.
Radcliffe shines best when, emaciated, weak, and desperate, he alternates between pleading for the release of death and scrabbling to survive one more day. He sleeps in fear of predators, spends the day foraging for barely enough food to survive, copes with a parasite infection during one wince-worthy scene, fends off being eaten alive by ants, has to deal with life-threatening quicksand-like bogs, and even hallucinates voices in the darkness. Jungle does a fantastic job of making it seem like Radcliffe is on the verge of death at any given moment, making his survival for over three weeks even more remarkable.
The move unfurls in two distinct halves. The second half is the meaty ‘fighting for survival’ but first we get to know Ghinsberg and his group. Outside of the jungle, the scenes feel more perfunctory: a necessary prologue before the story proper. Friends made on the road consist of headstrong Kevin (Alex Russell) and friendly but naïve Marcus (Joel Jackson). With casual drug use and a brief romantic entanglement, Jungle sets up that these are young carefree men, confident in their ability to enjoy adventure. This helps to sell the rather perilous journey they decide to take when deciding to follow charismatic Austrian guide Karl (Thomas Kretschmann) into literal uncharted territory.
As the gang is led further and further away from safety by the enigmatic Karl, Jungle flirts with taking a thriller route. Food runs low and previously strong friendships fray under pressure. Marcus refuses to eat wild monkey that Karl shoots out of a tree and his feet become so badly infected that his limp slow everyone down. It seems for a while that the jungle will harbour dark secrets as pressures mount, especially with the time pressure of a lethal and looming rainy season hanging over their heads.
Jungle trades off of desperation more than cast iron human will. Once separated from youthful camaraderie, the lone Radcliffe exudes less a will to survive, more a struggle not to die. Indeed, this is where director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) keeps us on the edge of our seat. Unlike the horrible decision made by a man with his arm trapped between a literal rock and a hard place in 127 Hours, or the mental strength needed to make a grueling trek down a freezing mountain despite broken legs in Touching The Void, Radcliffe’s journey is one of sheer continuance.
Through religious mutterings and utterly lost wanderings towards a hoped exit, Jungle shows a man that takes each challenge as it comes because…well…to not do so would be to die. What makes it just as enrapturing to watch is that such an approach is arguably more relatable to how you or I would probably cope under such circumstances.
That said, the lack of some higher emotive connection to the narrative beyond just willing our protagonist to survive means that, unlike its aforementioned contemporaries, Jungle struggles to lift itself out of simply telling an amazing story (one that’s impact will lessen once the results are known). But even so, I can’t remember another movie where I literally shouted “Go on! Go on! You can do it! Almost there!” at the screen of an evening.
Go on. You can do it. Almost there…
Words by Mike Record