“You don’t got that thing,” Sky (Jessica Barden) tells Lion (Jack O’Connell) during a scene in “Jungleland,” giving him the once-over as he would any opponent in the bare-knuckle boxing rings he frequents and finding he doesn’t appear to be a pugilist at heart, quickly adding, “I mean that as a compliment.”
Lion takes it as such while the two have cocktails in a watering hole somewhere in Indiana, though she’s slipped a Xanax into his drink just before with the hope of running off in the Land Rover he shares with his brother Stan (Charlie Hunnam). None of them want to be there, but Sky in particular is held against her will when, for reasons that gradually reveal themselves in Max Winkler’s third feature, she is being transported to San Francisco at the behest of a low-level hood named Pepper (Jonathan Majors), who in turn has turned a debt owed by Stan into an opportunity to repay him and perhaps even make some much needed cash by putting his brother into a no-holds-barred fight known as “Jungleland” on the west coast with a nice-sized purse and a chance to make a name for himself. Unlike Sky, Stan is convinced his brother has “it,” and is eager to have him demonstrate, even if O’Connell isn’t convinced of it himself. Looking around the relatively quiet bar, you know this isn’t going to be some worldshaking event should the Kaminsky brothers make it to the Bay Area or if Sky finds a way out of their clutches, but it means the world to them, a quality that a fine cast and an elegant script from Winkler, David Branson Smith and Theodore Bressman bring alive in this engaging drama.
With three actors usually given to high-octane performances, Winkler creates an agreeably soft, simmering energy and rhythm for a story of characters who have had to be as tough as nails to survive this long, all hailing from the hardscrabble backend burghs of New England. Although none of the trio has run too afoul of the law, they all occupy a grey area of potentially illegal activity with Stan already serving a stint in prison, and while the circumstances are less than ideal, this hastily arranged road trip can be seen as a way out of one were to look at it just right. Cleverly, Winkler allows the audience to see the potential the characters can see in one another, drawing upon a noble score from Lorne Balfe and clear-eyed cinematography from Damian Garcia that gives them a dignity they aren’t usually afforded in their daily interactions.
Winkler has long appreciated bold stylistic flourishes in the service of his broader comedies “Ceremony” and “Flower” and while he doesn’t suppress his strong cinematic instincts, he serves the subdued milieu well with brilliantly subtle touches in the sound design, like bringing out the sizzle of a grill when Sky is pressing Stan for answers, and letting scenes linger and deepen with only the most gentle of camera movement. That’s for the best when Hunnam and O’Connell have such warm, playful chemistry with one another as brothers who would do anything for each other and provide support in small, countless and immeasurable ways, which one can tell from something as simple as a nudge or a kiss on the forehead. Barden delivers a nice jolt of energy once she arrives in the picture and when Sky, far shrewder than her circumstances would suggest, develops distinctly different relationships with Stan and Lion, the natural tension of playing one off the other becomes quite compelling. In fact, when “Jungleland” so richly conveys a station in life where the world is limited to the people immediately around you, it creates stakes that couldn’t feel any bigger.
“Jungleland” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14th at 6 pm at the Scotiabank.