A Central American thriller leaning more on mood than thrills, “Tragic Jungle (Selva trágica)” plays like an Edgar Allan Poe tale adapted by Joseph Conrad.
It’s a “Heart of Darkness” jungle story with a supernatural threat, a kidnapped woman whose kidnappers succumb to her sex appeal before succumbing to the jungle itself. But that promising premise and arresting setting never pay off.
In what looks to be about 1940 British Honduras, Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin) is fleeing an arranged marriage to “an Englishman.” She may be “kind of white enough” for her would-be husband’s family, her friend Florence (Shantai Obispo) reasons. Why not just go through with it?
“Let him feel in control, then TAKE control,” she says of the prospect of married life to the much-older man. “That’s how men are.”
But it’s too late now. With a guide, a canoe and white dresses, they’re fleeing into the jungle of the border country between Guatemala, British Honduras and Mexico. And the Englishman (Dale Carley) is plainly not a man used to rejection. He and the best shots from his plantation are in hot pursuit, and we and Agnes figure out their orders are “Shoot to kill” entirely too quickly.
All isn’t lost, but Agnes finds herself out of the frying pan and in the fire when an armed gang of rogue gum harvesters stumbles upon her. They fret over who might be after her, scramble to slash and bleed Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) trees to collect the precious source of chewing gum, and lay low whenever they hear El caique (The Chief, or “Englishman”) passing in his boat.
But the narrator of the tale, the best guide for the deep jungle, the man who knows where the trees are and knows that “the jungle can give a lot, and take a lot away, too,” has his worries about the the non-Spanish speaker in their midst. Jacinto (Mariano Tun Xool) is Mayan. And when his fellow gum bandits start making unwanted advances, followed by untimely deaths, Jacinto can do the math.
She must be an Xtabay, a demon woman. She has, as Florence said, let the men “eel they are in control.” But now, she is. And the unwanted advances have become exactly what she wants.
Mexican director Yulene Olaizola (“Epitafio”) no doubt took on a high degree-of-difficulty in tackling this jungle tale. But her movie, seeking a sort of insidious quiet, never gives us high stakes, suspense or a single moment of fear. It’s too quiet for its own good.
The sexual encounters may be in the dark, but the deaths are bland, undramatic events that unfold in broad daylight. Emotions are kept in check, even after Jacinto’s suspicions make his compadres leery of this “curse” in their midst.
The would-be groom is still hunting her, and now them? Why aren’t he and his party similarly cursed?
We get a few clues as to why Agnes transforms (a change of dress), but nothing emotional. Tempers don’t flare (not really) no matter how much the shrinking gang recognizes the peril they’re under.
“Tragic Jungle” plays as a movie that’s more interesting to ponder than to watch, a film that doesn’t live up to its perilous setting.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, sexual assault, sex
Cast: Indira Rubie Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool and Dale Carley
Credits: Directed by Yulene Olaizola, script by Rubén Imaz, Yulene Olaizola. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1: