Watching people make bad decisions is nothing new in film. In fact, quite a few storytellers make their bones chronicling just such a thing. Straight-laced and overtly decent human beings aren’t always the most cinematic. Neither are completely despicable folks. The key is in finding the humanity within the flawed, or the relatability in those who make poor choices. The new movie Jungleland knows this in its bones, making a simple tale into an affecting mood piece. It takes its time getting to the point where you’re totally won over, but once you are, it’s off to the races. Plus, there’s a pretty strong ending here, making the journey one that’s well worth taking.
Jungleland echos a number of other works, from something like Warrior to even the songs of Bruce Springsteen. In fact, the aforementioned strong climax includes a perfect choice in playing Springsteen’s Dream Baby Dream over the sequence. The Boss is the poet laureate of the working class, so this working class tale is elevated by his inclusion, which pairs perfectly with a nice little score from composer Lorne Balfe.
For filmmaker Max Winkler, this is an intriguing right turn for his career. More known for darkly comic work, including the incredibly underrated Flower, puts forth an earnest drama here. Opting for a character study or mood piece, with somewhat of a road trip tale as well, is an interesting choice. It’s not what you’d expect from Winkler, especially if you’ve enjoyed his prior flicks, but it stretches him in all the right ways.
Brothers Walter (Jack O’Connell) and Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) lead a hard-scrabble existence. Walter, better known as Lion, used to be a promising boxer, but Stanley got his license revoked by trying to bribe a judge. Now, he still manages Lion, but it’s for low-end bare knuckle matches. Stanley always has schemes, most of which get him into trouble. He and Lion have a dream of making some money in order to open a dry cleaning shop, but it seems way out of reach. When his latest idea falls short once again, a local criminal in Pepper (Jonathan Majors) gives them both an offer that’s too good to be true. Not only will he get Lion into Jungleland, the high end battle royale in California, but he’ll provide money and a car. They just need to drop off someone on the way.
Headed out on the road with Sky (Jessica Barden) and Lion’s dog, the three become an extended family of sorts. Of course, they soon learn that Sky is being sent to less than savory characters, which was not part of the deal. Lion is growing attached to her and wants to protect her, while Stanley just wants to avoid them all being murdered. As they drive across the country, they struggle with this dilemma. It all builds to something surprisingly affecting, even if it’s largely expected.
The trio of Jessica Barden, Charlie Hunnam, and Jack O’Connell do equally strong work in the film. Barden initially seems closed off, but as she opens, there’s interesting layers to the performance. Hunnam has rarely been better, portraying a lovable loser, one with big dreams, but an inability to realize any of them. Then, there’s O’Connell, who just a few years ago seemed poised for Oscar attention and stardom. That hasn’t quite happened here for him yet, but he’s terrific in the movie, providing the moral arc of the narrative. Together, they depict a simple bond between folks who have nothing, lack much hope, and only have each other.
Max Winkler, co-writing with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith, as well as directing here, expands his skillset. His flick is simple, yet rock solid. Balfe’s score really pairs well with the images on display, as well as the climactic Springsteen selection. Bressman, Branson Smith, and Winkler lay out a sturdy path for the movie, with Winkler’s direction executing that roadmap with ease. There may not be much style here, but the substance is certainly there.
Jungleland falls short of greatness, but the film is still very good. If this sort of blue collar character study appeals to you, you’ll find plenty to latch on to. A few cliches aside, it’s more evidence that Winkler is a talented filmmaker. Give it a look and see what you think!
Jungleland is available now on VOD, on Digital, and in select theaters