Boxing movies tend to be classified as a macho man genre. It’s men clobbering each other because men take their frustration out with their fists. We don’t talk about our feelings, bro, let’s fight. Max Winkler’s Jungleland is an entirely different animal in how is uses the desperation of its characters to pack a superior punch. This is a tale of brotherly love that just happens to have some bare-knuckled brawls.
Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell star as Stanley and Lion, brothers who go from place to place in search of fights to make cash. Stanley is the talker while Lion steps up to fight. With a mounting debt looming over them, Jonathan Majors’ Pepper gives them an opportunity to square it all away if Lion fights in Jungleland, a no holds barred tournament. Pepper holds one condition over their heads, though. They must take along Jessica Barden’s Sky and drop her off at a specified location.
Winkler makes the relationship between Stanley and Lion the star of the film. We’ve seen the dynamic of brothers in boxing films before (like in David O. Russell’s The Fighter) but the connection between them is so intimate that I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it. These are men that have only depended on each other for so long that the idea of them being apart is strange and scary for them. It’s refreshing to see a director lean into that and Winkler makes it truly a fight for both men’s lives.
(Warning: there are slight spoilers for Jungleland in this review. Check out the film and come back to read!)
Awards Daily: What did you personally respond to with this story? I know that’s a general question to start off with.
Max Winkler: No, it’s not. I started writing this when I was editing Ceremony. In the same way that that film deals with two men who don’t know how to express their love for each other and trapped between these weird conventions of romance and masculinity. They don’t know how to say I love you to one another. The kind of movies I love have characters that can’t quite articulate the feelings that they have about themselves and other people. Jake Johnson was the original person with this idea and we wanted to do it as a play. I then took over and we did it as a movie and his voice was very much in my head while I was writing it. We got our start together filming things in my backyard.
AD: Oh yeah?
MW: When we first met, we went to this cop bar in LA and we were talking about what makes us laugh. We didn’t know why but we agreed on The Deer Hunter. You know, with these men being men but they really are sensitive inside. Through those conversations, we came up with these characters and they evolved after we started casting. The spirit of it definitely involved men not being able to tell each other the truth and be vulnerable with one another.
AD: I do love Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell in this. I was just telling someone the other week that I miss seeing him on screen.
MW: Jack did all of his own stunts.
MW: He worked so hard for this. They were so connected in this that we had to cut away. They were hugging and kissing and loving each other so much that when we first started showing the movie to people, they thought they were a couple. There was so much physical contact between them. It gives me chills just talking about it since they had that connection and they assumed these roles of brothers in the ways of love and fighting. There was a feeling on the set that I never had on a movie set. They are both such raw, natural talents. I became familiar with Jack’s work with Skins and ’71 and I don’t think he’s capable of a false moment.
AD: I agree with that.
MW: Charlie makes the choice to be in character movies. I had a bout of insomnia when King Arthur was on TV a lot and I ended up really loving it. I thought Charlie was one of the most captivating actors I had ever seen. I know people were hard on that movie, but I really loved the message of it. When I first met with Charlie, I kept talking about that movie and he thought I was fucking with him
MW: It’s this amazing hero’s journey about how you can’t move forward with your life unmless you face your fears. It’s very similar tonally to this movie. In this, Charlie, who is every bit a movie star, he does a Ratso Rizzo type–a hustler or urchin. I never think he’s Charlie Hunnam while I’m watching him. I was so moved by what he gave this movie.
AD: I’ve always thought he was a character actor stuck in a leading man’s body.
MW: Manohla Dargis said that once. He’s a soulful guy, but he disintegrates when he takes on a role.
AD: How much did you talk with Jack and Charlie about the bond between them? I really liked how the movie doesn’t utilize any flashbacks. The desperation is so much more immediate that way.
MW: I gave them some movies to watch and I gave them Of Mice and Men which was influential l in the writing. I wanted to feel that just in how they communicate that they’ve done this a million times. They’ve gone from town to town trying to find some semblance of a home until Charlie’s Stanley blows things up by doing things that he thinks will be good for his family. I always thought that Charlie was Willie Lohmann from Death of a Salesman. He’s holding onto the American dream by the final parts of his cuticles. We didn’t need to do boot camps because they connected immediately. A lot of the opening credits stuff was us hanging out in rehearsal days. That was a good way to build up their connection together.
AD: With everything that these characters go through, it could’ve been really bogged down. How do you steer clear from it becoming misery porn?
MW: very hopeful characters and I was hopeful, as a filmmaker, for them. I didn’t want to shoot it gritty and handheld to be depressing. For a lot of the movie, they love the adventure kind of the Boxcar Children. They just go from place to place. I didn’t want the score to depict them as depressed or smaller than. Stanley is the hero of his own movie. Almost like a single mother trying to get her child to college, he just needs to get his brother to use the one natural gift of fighting, his job can be done. By the end, it’s sad but his job is done. I never saw it as depressing and I felt like their love was palpable.
AD: A moment that is definitely triumphant is when Lion gets back up in the fight. I wasn’t expecting that.
MW: When you are in the editing room, you have the unfortunate experience of trying a song and finding it works perfectly. And then you are told all through the post schedule that you’re never going to be able to afford this song. I just refused to believe that we were never going to get [Bruce] Springstein to sign off on this. I worked on every avenue to get to the people that protect that this national treasure (laughs).
AD: How did you want to shoots the fights differently? The one in the garage feels like the camera is closer whereas when we get to Jungleland, the shots are wider and show how big it is.
MW: We had these totems for each fight scene. The first one was in the back of the Italian restaurant, and we watched Barry Lyndon for that. That fight in that movie is so wild and handheld and messy–you can feel how tiring it is to miss a punch. I wanted to feel how exhausting this is. For the first time in the movie, I wanted to show the impressive skill that Lion has but he’s ready to throw it all away in a moment out of principal to deal with a guy that’s done bad by his brother. For the mechanic’s shop, we understand it’s from Sky’s perspective. There’s nothing romantic about it. This isn’t Rocky–it’s savagery. Skin on skin. She sees the darkness of how Stanley uses his brother. There’s nothing poetic about it. Just three guys fist-fighting in the back of a mechanic’s shop. Jack did this amazing thing. He would always so physically understanding of what his body would feel after a fight. He was playing with is jaw in the car after the fight.
AD: Yeah, I noticed that.
MW: I thought it was such a good detail that the toll that this takes on his body. For the final fight, I was really inspired by a lot of old fight photographer, but I wanted to be able as though these guys through harrowing experiences where they got to a place they wanted to get to. To feel the elegance of the chandelier and the smoke from the cigarettes to open it up for us to experience it in a new way.
AD: All the hell they’ve gone through was kind of worth it to get to a huge moment.
MW: Right. It’s the grandness for this movie, you know? It’s not Madison Square Garden. It’s San Francisco Chinatown by the water in a bazaar. But for them, it’s as big as pay-per-view.
AD: When I was watching the final fight, it reminded me how claustrophobic the first one was. I felt like I was going to get shoved up against a wall.
MW: You’re right there. Because we aren’t having to cut away for stunt doubles, it’s all Jack, and the freedom you have in shooting it doesn’t matter. You’re not hiding. These guys don’t have gloves on so they are really using restraint and ballet-like balance to pull it off. It’s really elegant and beautiful to watch.
AD: If Sky hadn’t come along, do you think Lion would’ve verbalized his frustration with Stanley earlier? Has Lion always thought that Stanley was using him?
MW: I don’t think he’s had a window since Stanley keeps him so close. They live this sheltered life together and Sky truly is the agent of change for them. She gives Lion his voice. His voice is also in the way he fights. He says very little in the movie and that’s because Stanley doesn’t give him the opportunity to have one. He talks for him. Stanley talks so much. Sky gives him that gift.
Jungleland is available now available to rent on Amazon and Apple.