The more I watch new movies, the more I realize how square of a Catholic I have become. When deciding which obscure film to watch this weekend in the theater, the choice was between some Kevin Costner flick called Let Him Go, or the one I eventually chose, Jungleland (2019). Based on the previews I watched of each mere hours before leaving for the cinema, neither one of them appeared very uplifting, and the one I ultimately saw proved this assumption correct. But because I go to the movies on Saturdays (typically) after the Vigil Mass, and this one started not long after, I saw Jungleland. I suspect I would have been in for depression either way, which I do not enjoy.
Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion Kaminski (Jack O’Connell) are brothers living in the post-industrial town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Amidst the crumbling infrastructure they eke out a living working in a garment factory during the day, and squatting in a foreclosed wreck of a home at night. Their plan to escape their mean circumstances is for Lion to triumph in some pseudo-legal fighting tournament. Stanley devotes all his spare time to training and promoting his brother for this opportunity. He is perhaps a little too enthusiastic about doing so as it led him to attempt to bribe a boxing official in the past and thus getting Lion’s license to above-board fights revoked. But they keep at it, and in his next bout Stanley places a large bet on his brother with a local crime boss named Pepper (Jonathan Majors), though he does not have the money to back it up. When Lion loses, Pepper is unsurprisingly displeased. Instead of performing your run-of-the-mill gangster revenge moves, he decides to have the brothers Kaminski (sorry, Dostoevsky, for sort of dragging you into this nonsense) transport a mysterious girl named Sky all the way across the country. They do so under the pretense of entering Lion in a tournament worth $100,000 in San Francisco the following weekend. The young lady makes it perfectly clear she wants nothing to do with this plan, despite Stanley and Lion’s attempts at being amiable. Still, she notices that Stanley’s assumed role of protector and “brains” of the their joint enterprises is not without some strain, and she becomes close with Lion as they travel across the country. About half-way there near Gary, Indiana (which is really half-way to nowhere), they learn that Sky had not always been involved in such shady dealings. As they go along, through increasingly worse circumstances of their own doings, Sky and Lion’s bond deepens, though Stanley remains determined to deliver her to her destination. She clearly does not wish to see this happen, and she begins to try to get Lion to stand up to Stanley on her behalf. It seems to work too, for they abscond together while at a bus stop, leaving Stanley to face the people to whom they were to hand over Sky on his own. Despite this, Sky eventually takes off too, but not before giving Lion the gun Pepper gave them and the address where they were supposed to take her. Here another revelation as to Sky’s character comes out as it turns out to be an old man in Reno named Yates (John Cullum), and she is carrying his child. Anyway, Lion shows up, shoots a few people, and saves his brother. But because these two are rather dimwitted, Stanley leaves his driver’s license behind at the scene. Somehow this is enough for the police to know where the brothers Kaminski are headed. Thus they show up at the fight and haul away Stanley just as the referee is lifting Lion’s hand in triumph. I think Sky makes it to the fight at the end. I think.
Alright. Stanley certainly sees himself in Jungleland as Lion’s protector. One might say that he is his brother’s keeper, and that is Biblical. We use that phrase way too often, do we not? Whenever we want to wash our hands of any responsibility for our fellow man’s doings, we shrug our shoulders and say “I am not my brother’s keeper.” This is clearly not how the Kaminski boys see things, though I would not hold their relationship up as one to emulate. Stanley does seem to exercise I certain psychological grip on Lion, and at times it is suggested that Lion only fights because his brother forces him. This is one of the angles Sky takes in getting Lion on her side. Stanley’s intentions are not bad, but he goes about pursuing them in not so savory ways. It is all well and good to try to get your talented brother into a tournament with a chance to win a bunch of money. It is not right, however, to get mixed up with criminals. While I applaud him for laying down his life, essentially, for his brother when the police show up at the end, it did not have to be that way. Then again, I guess there would have been no movie otherwise. Actually, I would have been okay with that scenario.
There is nothing particularly appealing about Jungleland. I would say the grittiness of it, maybe, but for this reviewer I prefer to see such cinematic atmospheres in my historical dramas. You can accuse me of sticking my head in the sand to escape modern problems if you like. I would simply ask in return: do we not have enough problems where we have to invent new ones in movies? Do we need to see people having sex in bathrooms and basically abused women being rejected by their families? I suppose we can see these things if there is some kind of solution offered for them, instead of Sky and Lion possibly getting together at the end. I am not even sure if Lion’s victory meant he won the tournament. Instead, he has to commit murder, get his head knocked around, and then watch his brother get arrested. In short, this film is a big downer that I feel is best avoided. But at least Sky keeps her baby, so there is some pro-life Catholic-ness for you.