Poverty is a socioeconomic rung no one strives to fall into. Worse, sometimes you have no choice in the matter. Being born into a life without a guaranteed next meal or extended shelter is the origin story of far too many Americans. The land is not free, and the American Dream is a lottery designed to profit off the aspirations of the penniless. The only currency worth more than money is love — with it, you might just make it in this otherwise cruel world. In Jungleland, writer-director Max Winkler testifies to the persevering power of sibling love. For the Kaminski brothers, that means recognizing their best shot at overcoming destitution is sticking together.
Growing up in a small, impoverished town outside Boston, orphans Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Walter “Lion” Kaminski (Jack O’Connell) are used to the daily hustle. Scraping together some cash just to maintain nourishment for the next day’s identical cycle is a full-time job. They squat in abandoned, derelict houses, with Lion taking the bed so he can rest his body for the ultimate goal: getting his big break as a professional boxer. Now in their thirties, the brothers’ pipedream has begun to shrink, though Stanley — Lion’s self-appointed manager and life coach — isn’t about to throw in the towel. Ignoring Lion’s dream of someday owning a dry cleaning business, Stanley continues booking his brother for illegal fights hoping that someone from IBF is watching.
The Kaminski’s desperation to get out of their squalor becomes a fragrance to the wrong kind of talent investors. One of Stanley’s old bookies, Pepper (Jonathan Majors), offers Lion the chance to participate in a battle royale tournament held in San Francisco called “Jungleland.” The champion will receive a $150,000 prize, a figure which would pull the Kaminski’s out of their neverending financial woes. Of course, getting there necessitates a favor for Pepper’s employer, Yates (John Cullum), a sex trafficking crime boss headquartered in Reno, Nevada. The brothers either take Yates’ top possession — former exotic dancer, Sky (Jessica Barden) — to him or find themselves in the crosshairs of hitmen.
Winkler’s script is refreshingly unpredictable despite traversing familiar “road trip” territory. Character bonding is predicated on sheer survival, every setback a battle to stay off the streets. The trio’s unity only strengthens when shunned by those with the means to help. All they have to offer is Lion’s fists of determination, O’Connell delivering another tremendous performance that balances physical torment with emotional despair. Hunnam also scorches, imbuing Stanley with a ferocious spirit that’s both optimistic and acerbic.
However, it’s newcomer Jessica Barden who lands the fiercest punch. As Sky, Barden gives a nuanced portrayal of neglected, unappreciated young women who turn to undignified jobs to afford to forge their own path. If fast, big money means escaping a home deprived of love and acceptance, how could you ever blame someone for choosing themselves over virtue?
More transformative masculinity than toxic masculinity, Jungleland is a stirring drama about men navigating American life from rock bottom. The struggle of being poor without means of improvement will continue to endure unless the stacked deck is reshuffled. Although family may be the greatest treasure of all, being tethered to love doesn’t guarantee upward mobility. The quiet, observant nature of Jungleland reverses assumptions about grifters and voluntary sex workers. When a person doesn’t have the luxury of a warm bed or roof over their head, a rigid value system is the least of their concern.