Film Review – Jungleland
Life is not easy for brothers Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion Kaminski (Jack O’Connell). They live on the fringes of society with no other family or friends to help them. Life is an endless struggle just to get through each day. When we first meet them, Stanley and Lion are squatting in abandoned homes, living off of whatever they can carry in their bags. They work in a sewing factory, earning just enough not to starve. Lion is an amateur fighter, who participates in bare-knuckle brawls. This is the one path Stanley and Lion have to a better future, and both risk everything on that gamble.
Above all else, Jungleland (2020) is a story about lives on the brink of desperation. Director Max Winkler (who co-writes with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith) molds the narrative with a lyrical approach. The plot is familiar – involving characters trying to rise above their station through boxing – but Winkler’s vision adds a poetic touch. Damian Garcia’s cinematography has the camera sit back as a detached viewer, almost like a specter. Lorne Balfe’s score heightens the visuals by giving it an otherworldly, haunting feel. All of these elements make what is familiar feel fresh again – while we may know the notes to this song, the rhythm is something new.
Stanley and Lion are in trouble. Putting everything they have into Lion’s success as a fighter has put them in a bind, owing money to gangsters and loan sharks. One of them, Pepper (Jonathan Majors), gives them an opportunity to make up their debt. He orders the brothers to travel to San Francisco so that Lion can enter a big-time fight. The winner will earn enough money to set them up for life, but there is a catch. For Lion to enter the contest, the two must escort a young woman named Sky (Jessica Barden) to a specific location along the way.
Why Sky has to tag along with Stanley and Lion is revealed later on, but that isn’t what becomes the narrative focus. While Jungleland is about boxing, it’s really more of a road trip movie in which each of our three characters open themselves up to one another. They have experienced anguish and are handling it their own way. All three are outcasts. Stanley is the schemer, always talking a big game and plotting their next move. Lion is the introverted brother, who has dreams of his own but a deep attachment to Stanley may hinder those ambitions. Sky is in the middle – she has experienced perhaps the most significant pain. The most heartbreaking moment involves a visit to Sky’s family, where a dinner table conversation devolves into pent up frustrations spilling out.
The writing and direction keeps everything grounded and gritty. This may feature boxing, but it is without the glitz and glamor, big crowds, gold belts and announcers describing every punch. In fact, as we follow Stanley, Lion, and Sky, we become aware of how hard it is for them to even find a place to sleep. Lion breaks into gyms to train and fights in the backrooms of Chinese restaurants. When the three break into a high school late at night to eat and rest, it’s almost as if they have been transported into a different dimension – like a vacation from the outside world. Stanley’s desire to strike it rich is so inflated that when they come into some extra cash, he spends it by booking the fanciest hotel he can find.
All three main actors deliver strong performances. Jessica Barden and Jack O’Connell are subdued yet effective in expressing their characters inner thoughts. They are good at telling us a lot without having to say too much. Charlie Hunnam delivers what might be one of his finest performances. Stanley is brash, using his mouth to con his way in and out of almost any situation. Some might see this and automatically label him a weasel, but upon closer inspection we find that he is perhaps the saddest of the three. He puts so much pressure on Lion to win because he knows he has no other option. Stanley continuously mentions how Lion is the best fighter he has ever seen not just for promotion but because Stanley sees the potential that he never had. It’s clear that Stanley depends on Lion and not the other way around. Where Lion dreams of opening up his own business and becoming his own man, Stanley is left having to grasp onto someone else to make it.
The crime story elements of Jungleland are rather unpleasant, especially involving the reasons why Sky needed to be escorted on the trip. But beyond that, the dynamic between Stanley, Lion and Sky is worth watching. They represent lost souls, often ignored or shunned by the rest of the population. As schmaltzy as it may seem, the “fight” in this story is not just in the ring. For ninety minutes I felt like I was in their shoes, chugging along trying to find even the slightest glimmer of peace.