Over the last few years, Daniel Radcliffe has been doing his damnedest to separate his image from the character that brought him fame, and he may have finally done so, as he finds himself bearded and writhing around in the mud. He’s lost in the woods again, but unlike his stint in Swiss Army Man, he has been stripped of his ability to double as a flatulence-powered water vehicle and use of his directorial erection to find civilization. Instead, he is leading the charge as real-life wilderness survivor Yossi Ghinsberg in Jungle, a man-vs.-nature movie you’ve undoubtedly seen before.
From Australian schlocky horror director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, The Belko Experiment), the film transports us to the fall of 1981, as Ghinsberg embarks upon an expedition of the Bolivian Amazon jungle with two kindred spirits (Alex Russell and Joel Jackson) and a gruff, hardened guide (Thomas Kretschmann). As seasoned viewers might expect, the rainforest is unforgiving, and soon Ghinsberg is stranded, without amenities or any way of making it to the nearest village alive.
Jungle takes a while to get started. The first half of the movie is perfectly safe for grandma, with loads of pleasant jungle scenery, cheeky platitudes, and working montages set to jangly guitar music. However, halfway through, the audience is sent on a darkly grim turn, beginning with a scene in which an unidentifiable animal is beaten to death, ripped apart, and then eaten. The bridge between the movie’s tonal halves is so thin that it calls into question why we even needed both of them. It’s difficult to image a viewer who is fully onboard with all that this haphazard disconnect in moods has to offer.
The film’s most obnoxious sin is that it is never able to even remotely capture the gravity of its protagonist’s situation. Ghinsberg’s is a tale of survival that is extraordinary on a domestic level, but in the cinematic realm, it is almost entirely indistinguishable from the others of its ilk. Perhaps because it is never given adequate screen time, his struggle for survival lacks any sense of urgency. The actual details of the event are almost certainly gritty and spine-tingling, but we never get that impression from the pieces presented to us.
While Jungle tries on the clothes of “based on a true story” films like Into the Wild and 127 Hours, they hang loosely as it becomes increasingly clear that Greg McLean has no earthly idea what made those narratives impactful. The weight of the material is all but lost, with the slight exception of the exigency brought on by the lofty performances. The supporting cast are all serviceable, but it is Daniel Radcliffe who shines, mainly due to the fact that he appears to be under the impression that he is starring in a much more serious film. Out of his Harry Potter cohort, his post-wizardry career continues to be the most promising.
Jungle can never decide if it wants to go full Disney or veer hard into the grisly nature of its tale, and it isn’t willing to do the legwork necessary to connect its two minds. Yossi Ghinsberg has an arresting story to tell – and one that many audiences have forgotten, if they ever knew it to begin with – but its journey to the screen doesn’t do it any favors. McLean flirts with his lead character’s sense of wonder, astonishing resilience, and existential dread, but anyone interested would be better off watch one of the numerous similar films released in the past few years. Even though Jungle is based on true events, it feels inescapably disingenuous.