Performances and Sound Design Succeed in a Film that Otherwise Struggles to See the Jungle for the Trees – Jungle (Film Review)

With Greg McLean’s new jungle survival experience, we get something of a mixed bag: in this case, a literal divide in the quality of the film’s halves. What starts off as a sloppily written rehash of John Boorman’s superior Deliverance, ends up resembling something closer to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours by its conclusion: it’s in the latter description that Jungle finds its mojo.

So just how does this narrative shift come about? Well, Jungle involves itself with the true story surrounding Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), who, accompanied by newly acquainted explorers Marcus (Joel Jackson) and Kevin (Alex Russell), as well as the seasoned yet mysterious guide Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), agree to enter the Amazon Rainforest on something of an adrenaline-fuelled escape. What starts as an enjoyable excursion, results in a number of close encounters that lead to the group’s eventual separation, with Ghinsberg ultimately left to fend for himself.

Now, you could accuse me of spoiling an important element of the plot with this synopsis: Ghinsberg’s isolation from the other travellers. However, as indicated by my opening, I think it’s important to embolden this narrative decision as it all but saves the movie from stumbling head-first into the river rapids of movie mediocrity. While McLean leans quite heavily on Justin Monjo’s confused script in Jungle’s opening half, he lets loose when it comes to Ghinsberg’s decisive fight for survival, all but dropping any form of dialogue, save for a few moments of self-inspiration and hallucinatory interaction. Without this, McLean unleashes the full extent of Steve Burgess’ incredible sound design and Johnny Klimek’s unsettling score, creating a ferocious torrent of sensory abuse for Ghinsberg – and us as his identifiers – as he strives to navigate the labyrinthine Amazonian flora. Interjecting these pure, primal survival sequences are informative flashbacks, founded not on a conventional schema for narrative exposition, but instead utilised to flesh out Ghinsberg’s solitarily psychosis. He experiences guilt, desire, intense hunger due to his lack of nourishment: it’s a corporeal and aural overload that strengthens the impact of the movie.

It’s just a shame that this technical virtuosity is revealed so late into the movie. Instead, what precedes this is a clunky, mishandled interrogation of masculinity and camaraderie, a topic handled with an adept seriousness and delicacy in Boorman’s aforementioned Deliverance. Monjo’s script does not attain this level of thematic fluidity. Rather than subtly investigate the internal/external issues of maintaining a macho masquerade in the face of fear, Monjo opts for forced and awkward dialogue that signposts its intentions: as an example, one could take a scene where Yossi, Kevin and Marcus discuss how safe they are under the supervision of Karl, newly christened as Papa by Marcus, with the latter asserting Karl’s validity as leader with the creepily infantile line ‘you should apologise to him, Papa looks after us’. It’s in these obvious and tonally confused exchanges that Jungle almost lost me, with McLean failing to extract any sense of real dramatic weight as the fractures of this group’s relationship begin to build up.

In spite of the script’s faults, the cast delivers what it can from the material, with Radcliffe and Kretschmann in particular adding as much nuance as they can to their respective roles. With Yossi, Radcliffe sells his internal torment with great expression, as well as meeting the physical demands in a number of incredible action sequences: one scene involving Yossi and Kevin in the rapids of the Amazon river is a sight to behold, impacted by Radcliffe’s solid emotional performance. Then there’s Kretschmann, who all but steals the show from Radcliffe with his layered, unsettling performance as the clandestine Karl, whose motives are never quite clear until Jungle’s final moments: whenever his nervous laugh breaks into the narrative stream, I dare you not to be even a little unnerved.

To conclude, Jungle left me a little conflicted as to whether I could recommend it to you for a trip to the cinema. Its script drags it down like a gorilla to a branch, but the film’s aesthetic quality and technical audacity make it worth the cinematic experience. Ultimately, it’s down to your prioritisation: does its practical prowess make up for its narrative flaws? If the answer is yes, then take a trip to see it. Just be sure to find a cinema with a strong surround system: the sound design in itself will leave you satisfied.

Dir: Greg McLean

Prd: Todd Fellman, Mike Gabrawy, Gary Hamilton, Mark Lazarus, Dana Lustig, Greg McLean

Scr: Justin Monjo

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Joel Jackson, Alex Russell, Thomas Kretschmann

DOP: Stefan Duscio

Music: Johnny Klimek

Jungle is in cinemas and on demand on Friday 20th October.