In the cinematic universe of director Greg McLean, it’s never a good idea to go on a trip – in the Wolf Creek films and Rogue, backpackers exploring the Australian wilderness run into a psychopathic Crocodile Dundee and an even more dangerous actual crocodile … the office workers sent overseas in The Belko Experiment are driven to massacre by a corporate social studies program … even the possession drama The Darkness, McLean’s most anonymous job of work, begins with an ill-advised family picnic in the desert. Here, a long opening – which echoes the measured build-up of the first Wolf Creek – does nothing to dispel the ominous feelings stirred by another package holiday with McLean as guide.
In 1981 – a while after Cannibal Holocaust and a while before The Emerald Forest – undersized Israeli gap year wanderer Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is mooching around Bolivia, cultivating his beard and (high quality) accent, enjoying various forms of trippiness and befriending lanky Swiss teacher Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson) and in-the-know American wayfarer Kevin Gale (Alex Russell). Then, he’s accosted by Karl Ruprechter (Thomas Kretschmann), a shady character who promises a guided trip into the real jungle – talking of the sorts of stone age lost tribes seen in cannibal movies, and sights well off the beaten tourist traps. Again, McLean watchers might be expecting psychopathy from the charismatic German – but what emerges on the trek is a different brand of danger as the guide turns out to be wildly erratic, casually dispensing survival wisdom and shooting monkeys for food but terrified of the river because he can’t swim. And the firm friendships of the young guys are strained by oddly minor issues which mushroom away from civilisation – it all boils down to poor sock maintainance, and the way that Marcus’s problem feet inhibit adventuring at a faster pace. At the mid-point, the group fractures through decision and by accident … and Yossi finds himself alone in the jungle, with only his hallucinations for company, swarmed over by wildlife which will either kill him or which he must kill to eat. When a boil-bruise raises on his forehead, he touches it and feels something alive inside – leading to a pretty gruesome sequence. Later, a harmless seeming tortoise nudges into frame and the film’s protagonist seems like a monstrous invader intent on harm – all of which serves again to expand our understanding of how far Radcliffe is willing to go onscreen to get away from the shadow of Harry Potter.
Justin Monjo’s script is based on Ghinsberg’s book, which upfront tips the hand that this will have a more upbeat finish than McLean’s previous holiday dramas – indeed, there’s an interesting shift in tone from the primal savage ordeal drama of the director’s earlier work to this essay in the true-life survival genre (cf: 127 Hours, Six Below). Though it has nods to the more delirious Italian exploitation ventures into South American jungles – especially when Yossi is tripping from pep pills, natural hallucinogens, fire ant venom or starvation and fatigue – the film it most resembles is Giuseppe Maria Scotese’s Miracles Still Happen, a 1974 true-life drama with Susan Penhaligon lost in the jungle. Every so often we pull back for an aerial shot of the serene beauty of the jungle, which Karl claims is on the point of disappearing entirely, before plunging into struggles with rapids, quicksand and creepy-crawlies. Some of the wilder flights of fancy, as the tripping Yossi thinks himself into a James Bond movie or an erotic thriller, are weirder than they are effective, but the perhaps-fantasised encounter with an inexplicable, lone native woman (Yasmin Kassim, a Neighbours alumnus who could be the Me Me Lay of our generation) is genuinely strange. It’s odd, but almost encouraging to see McLean move from stark, brutal depictions of human bestialism to an essay on the enduring strength of the human spirit. And, though based on a true story you can easily look up, it still manages to hold back a few chills for it’s ‘what’s happened since’ montage over photographs of the real people involved.