Max Winkler’s “Jungleland” is a confidently crafted, well-acted three-hander, and your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on how many times you can watch its protagonists fuck up. They’re roughneck guys, perpetually down on their luck; the story begins with them already in the hole, desperately trying to pull themselves out. But the mistakes they make are repetitive and frustrating enough to make for an exhausting viewing experience; your mileage with this one should roughly correspond with your patience.
Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) is the big talker and big dreamer, a combination that’s already landed him in the crosshairs of some nasty people. He manages his brother, “Lion” (Jack O’Connell), a bare-knuckle boxer working the kind of venues you don’t even want to walk past (much less go inside). But Stanley sees his brother’s gift for taking and receiving a punch as their ticket to a life of luxury and ease. “I can see our future when I close my eyes,” he whispers. “I got it all laid out.” They have something of an “Of Mice and Men” dynamic, except Stanley’s doing both the talking and the listening.
When “Lion” blows a critical fight, putting them even deeper in debt to a local gangster, they’re given a kinda-sorta way out: they must travel across the country to the film’s titular event—a bare-knuckle, no-rules, “battle royale” competition—for a $100K prize. But they’ll have a third wheel: Sky (Jessica Barden), an enigmatic young woman whom they are to drop in Nevada along the way. “She’s a bit of a handful,” Stanley is assured, “but she’s cool.” They’re not given an explanation for her travel, and she doesn’t offer one. But soon enough, they discover that they’re handing her over to “Yates,” a criminal whose name is invoked like a boogeyman; she begs them to let her go. “Stan, look at her,” Lion protests. “C’mon, are we that low?”
And that, in a way, is the crucial question of “Jungleland”: how far down will you go and where will you draw the line? By that point, Lion has reason to care about Sky; he’s opened up to her in private because when his brother isn’t around, he can get a word in edgewise. A prickly, peculiar dynamic develops between these three characters, who all begin to think they see each others’ motives, and are occasionally correct.
Barden, a young British actress, is a real find – she’s got a knack for sharp lines and deadpan reactions. This is a star-making performance, especially in her two scenes with O’Connell, where the actors develop a sweet, believable byplay. Hunnam, an actor whose work runs—to put it politely—a little on the inconsistent side, is also quite good, deftly conveying a false bravado and righteous indignation, and, at the picture’s conclusion, finally revealing his openness and vulnerability. And though his role is brief, the great John Cullum is utterly terrifying as Yates.
Winkler’s direction is intimate and lived-in; he seems at home in these grungy rooms and on these grimy streets. He stages the big emotional set pieces well—though using Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” feels like cheating—and he’s skilled at trimming the fat, skipping scenes of formalities and introductions entirely. The picture runs a lean 90 minutes and doesn’t waste the viewer’s time.
But some viewers will find the hamster-wheel nature of “Jungleland” monotonous, and it’s hard to blame them. The script—by Theodore B. Bressman, David Branson Smith, and Winkler—presents these characters, in scene after scene, with opportunities for frustratingly dumb mistakes; dumber than even no-luck guys like these would make, errors that feel less organic to their circumstances than necessary to the movement of the narrative. Viewers more interested in performance and mood likely won’t mind. But it’s a pretty big ask for everyone else. [B-]