Jungleland: Powerful siblings drama is elevated to greatness by its performances

Cinema has been gifted with some of its strongest tales in stories that are predicated on the relationships between male siblings. Whether you’re most captivated by the rivalry among the utterly divergent Trask brothers of East of Eden, the fractious bond of the Malloys in On The Waterfront, The King of Marvin Gardens‘ idiosyncratic look at the Staebler bros or the squalid doom engulfing the Hansons in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, the tension, envy and love (however dysfunctional) in these works showcases a singular kind of emotional gamut. You are from the same place and (especially if you’re similar in age) essentially friends who had no choice in the matter, frictions being easy to fall into as you both more or less want the other to be similar in values and behaviour because you see yourselves in each other, just as your parents see themselves in you. These films, and many others, examine the effect that the expectations of masculinity has on these dynamics, particular emphasis placed on the conflict between stoic individualism and being morally courageous due to a wider empathy.

Jungleland, the latest effort from Max Winkler, is a poignant, tough-minded and immersive addition to this template that takes tried-and-tested tropes into unexpected territory and maintains your attention via the passionate authenticity of its focal players.

Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) & Walter (Jack O’Connell) Kaminski are two rough-hewn outsiders living in Fall River, Massachusetts. Walter, who mostly goes by the nickname ‘Lion’, is a talented boxer who became persona non grata in the sport’s legitimate echelons thanks to the hare-brained venality of elder brother Stanley. Squatting in an abandoned house and barely making ends meet with their jobs at a sewing factory, the Kaminskis hope to bag themselves a new existence with Lion’s ongoing participation in the local bare-knuckle fighting circuit, Stanley acting as his manager and placing ballsy wagers (this primarily consists of Lion toughing it out in dangerous back-room bouts while Stanley and his glib opportunism mire the pair of them into deeper travail).

Lion’s failure to win his latest match increases the ire of Stanley’s creditor, an icy crime lord named Pepper (Jonathan Majors) who bet on Lion’s victory at Stanley’s insistence. After a beating, Pepper produces one final chance for the Kaminskis: drive to San Francisco and compete in Jungleland, a no-holds-barred boxing tournament where the winner shall stroll away with $100,000. Stanley owes Pepper a couple of thousand so, if Lion can work his magic, the brothers could start finding their route to Easy Street far sooner than they imagined. But there’s one catch: Pepper demands that the duo takes along Sky (Jessica Barden) a young woman described as a ‘friend of the family’ who may or may not be involved in prostitution. Drop her off in Reno, Nevada, continue to San Francisco, punch your way to riches.

Things get off to a prickly start as Sky’s presence serves to illuminate a schism in the values and motivations of the Kaminski brothers. Stanley displays little empathy for her, seeing her as a temporary thorn in the side en route to the prize. This is slowly exacerbated by Lion feeling emotionally safe enough around Sky to articulate a more tender and vulnerable side to his personality. Concerned that his little brother is taking his eye off their dreams in favour of this enigmatic and volatile girl, Stanley harshly warns Lion against emotional investments and presses for him to focus on their ‘company’, the latter’s patience wearing thinner given the brothers’ suspicion that Sky’s destination is actually the hangout of Yates (John Cullum), a Reno-based business associate of Pepper whose name carries connotations of a sinister gangland boogeyman. The long journey across the country will see the trio come clean about regrets, resentments, aspirations and whether they might all find individual and collective redemption under the looming shadow of Jungleland.

First and foremost, strong commendation must be awarded to the performances here. Admittedly, I’ve never been overly keen on Charlie Hunnam, often finding him to be a performer of unconvincing emotional range with a negligible ability for accents. I’m always delighted to have pre-conceived notions (try as I might to never have them) thrown in my face when an actor I’m unsure of knocks it out of the park, as Hunnam unequivocally does here. Infusing Stanley with a fragile bravado and selfishness that betrays a loving protectiveness of Lion, Hunnam crafts a character who spends long portions of the film being cocky, silver-tongued and rather unlikeable but with an ever-present earnest melancholy that ensures you care. He has a highly naturalistic and moving chemistry with O’Connell, whose portrayal of Lion offers a taciturn and wounded spirit who doesn’t communicate a passion for his sport as much as he does repressed anger that he happens to be very good at conveying with his fists.

I never shy away from the opportunity to gush about my love of the New Hollywood movement, and one aspect of Jungleland that truly sold it for me was its resemblance to that vein of 1970s cinema. There is a wonderful episodic structure at work, almost like vignettes of interpersonal exchanges between the trio and incidental narrative developments that highlight the precarious dog-eat-dog existence that the Kaminskis have been born and raised into. Contentious moments that other films would make a big deal out of sharply segue into another situation, as is often the case when you’re accustomed to an unpredictable and heartless milieu where kingpins hold all the keys and you need to beg, borrow, cheat and steal to get what you need. In light of the name Lion and his pugilistic bent, obvious comparisons (and perhaps influence) are apparent with the likes of Scarecrow and Fat City, more so with the former as this is very much a road movie, Lion’s boxing talent serving as mere acceleration for character study. Barden matches Hunnam and O’Connell in her understated turn as Sky, whose aloof toughness has its own reveals in store regarding past pain and higher ambitions.

If I have any criticisms at all, it’s that they don’t bloody use Bruce Springsteen’s fantastic song that lends the film its name (although his music does feature). With immaculate cinematography by Damian Garcia (take my word for it, some of the shots in this film are truly stunning) and an appropriately emotive score from Lorne Balfe, Winkler & co. have created a distinctly believable mood-piece with an arresting throwback quality, the idiosyncratic and transformative expedition therein offering an experience that easily ranks as one of the year’s stronger films.

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