My favorite biopics — those that tell any portion of a real person’s story faithfully — are those that borrow from other genres. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie possesses the kinetic punch of a horror film. Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss! is a sharp comedy. And Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy is a cutting satire, while Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol comes off as a kind of whimsical, psychoanalytic murder mystery. Now with Jungle, director Greg McLean, whose career launched with the indie horror hit Wolf Creek, brings elements of the psychological thriller to the real-life story of Yossi Ghinsberg, an adventurer who found himself separated from his friends and suddenly prey for any number of toothy predators in an Amazonian jungle. Ghinsberg somehow survived the ordeal and recounted it in his 1993 memoir Back From Tuichi, which McLean used as source material for this harrowing film. But while the horror director successfully distills Ghinsberg’s spare prose into a succession of terrifying images, McLean can’t seem to help straying into the tackier elements of horror.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Yossi, whom we meet as he’s arriving in Bolivia after backpacking through other countries. Yossi’s voice-over explains that he left the Israeli army to find adventure, and introduces us to Marcus (Joel Jackson) and Kevin (Alex Russell), a Swiss teacher and American photographer, respectively. The three form a quick bond that’s almost immediately tested by a stranger, Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), who convinces the young men to join him on a dangerous expedition for gold.
McLean treats Karl just as he did the local psychopath in the early scenes of Wolf Creek. Karl’s emotions and motives are unreadable, as is his expertise as a geologist and jungle guide. One minute, Karl hacks his way through dense palms and easily finds his way to water. The next, he’s bungling the group’s raft ride over some rapids, risking everyone’s lives. Kevin pleads with Yossi to believe him that Karl is an imposter who doesn’t know what he’s doing, but McLean allows us to wonder whether Kevin is just an arrogant American or if Karl is actually a fraud — or something even more dangerous. Kretschmann’s performance sells that latter possibility completely.
The quartet is constantly at odds. Marcus, who was described by Yossi in that early voice-over as a man with “the heart of a poet,” becomes a pitiable scapegoat for everyone’s anger. His blistered feet slow the group members, who are trying to make time before torrential rains set in, and they take it out on Marcus even though everyone should be angry with Karl for bringing them there in the first place. Still, Yossi and Kevin soldier on by saddling themselves with more of Marcus’ bags. One night, Marcus sits by the fire on the verge of tears. The men won’t say what they’re thinking — that he’s weak — but Marcus can sense it. He tells Yossi that he knows something has changed and that they’re no longer friends, but Yossi lies to him. McLean shows us Yossi and Kevin with their heads on their pillows, listening with gritted teeth to Marcus’ incessant weeping, almost like the wailing of an unsettled ghost. We feel Marcus’ hopelessness but also the other men’s seething anger. Throughout these scenes, I kept forgetting what the real story was and wondered when one was going to snap and kill the others.
Later, when Yossi is isolated and wandering the jungle — wet, hungry and hallucinating — McLean totally drops that tension he’s built with a series of fantasies Yossi imagines. They’re over the top and mismatched in tone from the rest of this gritty film. In one, Yossi imagines he’s at a fancy party with a beautiful woman who’s showering him with champagne, and McLean’s winking at us with every brightly lit, slow-motion shot. Why break us out of the rising tension for a detour of cheeky fun? It’s almost as though the director lost confidence in his ability to sustain the serious mood and had to let out an exasperated laugh. But McLean does largely succeed here in telling a story that’s just as thrilling as its source material.