Greg McLean’s Jungle, which premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August and is now available to stream on various platforms in the U.S., reminds me of the sort of movie I liked to see at the Logan back when it was still a second-run theater. Familiar but not bland, unpretentious but not unintelligent, Jungle delivers the basic pleasures of the survival-in-the-wilderness genre with craftsmanship, sympathy, and some imagination. The feature was made on a relatively low budget (despite taking place in the Amazon rainforest, most of it was shot in Australia), and it shows; most of the time, the filmmakers suggest rather than show the majesty of the locations. Yet I admired the resourcefulness of the filmmaking, which generates suspense through storytelling and character development. While I would’ve liked to have seen the location footage on a big screen, I found enough to appreciate on a television.
The story begins in 1981. Yossi (Daniel Radcliffe) is an Israeli who’s backpacking his way around the western hemisphere, hoping to discover himself. On his journey, he winds up in Bolivia, where he befriends two other travelers: Marcus (Joel Jackson), a Swiss schoolteacher on sabbatical, and Kevin (Alex Russell), a photographer from the U.S. The three make their way through villages, camp in the woods, and experiment with hallucinogenic drugs. On one stop, they meet Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), a solitary man with a shady past who hails from an unspecified European country; he offers to take the friends on an adventure through the rainforest and introduce them to an indigenous tribe that lives divorced from modern civilization. They accept his offer and take off for the jungle.
In little time tensions form among the group, with the headstrong Kevin resenting the timid Marcus for holding up the trip and Karl resenting all three friends for doubting his navigational expertise. When the foursome get lost in the jungle, these tensions come to a head. Kevin wants to raft downriver and find the natives Karl promised to see, while Karl and Marcus want to walk along the river and find the nearest village. Yossi goes with Kevin, and the two get separated from their raft—and each other—after they hit some rapids. The rest of Jungle focuses on Yossi as he struggles to make his way out of the rainforest.
A sense of artificiality pervades the film. Much of the action plays out in close-up, with stunt people obviously performing what little physical activity we see. The Australian exteriors that sub in for the South American jungle are never convincing. And with the exception of Kretschmann, none of the leads speaks in his native accent (their accents aren’t convincing either). Yet the sincerity of the storytelling softens the impact of these other awkward components. McLean and the actors exhibit sympathy toward all the major characters—each man clearly has his reasons for wanting to proceed as he does, and this yields some interesting drama, as the characters debate how to move forward, then execute their plans.
In its mix of essentialist storytelling and blatant artifice, Jungle sometimes recalls the 1940s work of low-budget director Edgar G. Ulmer (Bluebeard, Strange Illusion, Ruthless). Ulmer was shrewd in his use of lighting and offscreen space to cover up his lack of resources—he called on viewers to imagine the world outside the frames, thus making the world of the film as big as anything the viewer can imagine. Ulmer’s minimalist aesthetic also encouraged viewers to focus on more cerebral themes. Jungle achieves an abstraction that resembles Ulmer in its expressionistic dream sequences, which consider Yossi’s deep-seated motives for risking his life, and in conversations, filmed in close-up, that find the characters bearing their true feelings about each other. The movie is as much about inner space as it is about the natural world.
As a result, Jungle feels weirdly expansive. The close-ups suggest two kinds of mysteries—one vast, the other invisible—and they create an interesting frisson with the straightforward storytelling. Once the characters get lost, Jungle is mostly about the specific things that need to be done immediately to ensure survival. But by presenting the characters as psychological abstractions, McLean makes the story feel universal. He wants you to ask whether you’d be capable of surviving an experience like this—and whether survival in extreme circumstances is a matter of physical or mental strength.