Saturday, December 18, 2010
Execution is key. Any boxer, or athlete for that matter will tell you the same thing. And it's certainly true of David O'Russell's The Fighter. While certainly hitting conventional beats narratively (such is the nature of an inspiring true story film, especially one in a genre like the boxing drama), there is a rather unconventional approach to it all. Russell brings a directorial identity to Mark Whalberg's passion project one would not expect of a typical boxing film. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's one of the stylized films I've seen this year, even if not immediately apparent.
The first thing that springs to mind is the way the fights are shot. Rather than beautifully shot in slow-motion or with gorgeous cinematography of some sort, they are shot as if one was watching the actual fight on HBO. This may not seem like a stylistic choice at first, but it's actually quite so. Gritty and realistic, the lack of visual flourish actually make the fight feel more real and threatening, putting you right in the ring due to the incredible sound mix. I often grow weary of hearing slow-mo punches in all their "BOOOOOMMMMM...!" glory. Rather, here we get a sound that resembles nothing short of bone-crunching pain.
Just as well, the film isn't really about boxing. That sounds strange, so let me explain. It's a film about family, the the baggage they bring into our lives. Granted, most of us dont have a family this colorful, but we still have some people in there that are overbearing, controlling, and just plain drive us nuts. Here, we have a man who is controlled and has his life run by his overbearing mother, crack addict has been brother, and brood of white trash sisters. You could replace boxing with any profession and drive to be great at something and the film would still work as a compelling drama about the relationship between two brothers, their mother, and a woman.
The film wouldn't work were the principal players involved not convincing, and boy are they ever. Featuring one of, if not the best ensemble cast in a film this year, the film effortlessly soars when the actors are just doing their thing, and everyone brings their A-game. Mark Whalberg is in one of his most low-ket roles ever, a far cry from his showy Oscar Nominated performance in The Departed, he is the sweet, solid rock that holds all the crazy together. It's a restrained, subtle performance that really captures the essense of Micky Ward, a sweet, loving guy who just wants stability in his life. Amy Adams shines as his girlfriend, playing completely against her typecast nature of the good girl and, in one scene in particular, really kicks ass. She's a smartass bartender who doesn't take shit from anyone and lets you know, using a combination of expletives some of you have never even heard before. Sexy, determined, and just an all around badass when she needs to be. Melissa Leo is clearly having the time of her life in a role one can only describe as the overbearing mother from hell, Barbara Hershey in Black Swan notwithstanding. She really does want the best for her sons, but she has no way of showing it other than hostility and a control-freak nature. Yet there's an odd vulnerability to her, especially when she realizes what her son Dicky, the apple of her eye, really is; a junkie. It's hard not to feel for a mother who can't accept that her son isn't who she thought he was.
But all of these actors quietly allow the film to belong to it's true star, who should stand up and take a bow. Christian Bale is nothing short of a revelation here. We've known for some time he was extremely talented, tapping into that brilliance in films like American Psycho, The Prestige, The Machinist, Rescue Dawn, and his masterful portrayal of Batman in Nolan's films. But here he displays a maturity and range like nothing we've ever seen before. He completely transforms himself in the role, and this is exactly the kind of thing everyone knew the method actor was capable of. His eyes bulge out of their sockets, he flails his arms around like wet noodles, mixing humorous charm with a real sense of a broken man. Here is someone who could have had it all, and had a God-given gift for boxing. He could get drunk and stay up all night, not train for a week, and still show up in the ring and completely destroy his opponent the next day. He could have been the next great boxing champion, the next Muhammed Ali for all we know, and yet he had no self discipline. He got addicting to crack-cocaine, and that, as they say, is that. But he carries on with delusions of a big comeback, so fooled into his own self-deception perpetuated by his enabling mother and the way the people in his town worship him, that when a HBO documentary crew follows him around filming him as the subject of a cautionary tale about drug addiction, he thinks they are making a movie about his comeback. It's only when he's in prison that he watches the film and realizes just how much he's ruined his own life. And Bale conveys every emotion on such an authentic level it never once comes off as acting. He convinces you that he's lived this character's life, and really is a drug addict trying to get himself back on his feet. The way he walks with a welcome home cake from the gym which he has just been exiled from, to his former crack-house, and instead of punching out his former "friends" or throwing the cake at them, he simply hands his dealer the cake, looks at him, and walks away quietly, never saying a word. It's a feat of performance art that truly deserves every bit of praise and award that comes it's way, and if there is any justice on God's green earth, Bale will win the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. The thespian is in a class of his own, and only the likes of Natalie Portman, Ryan Gosling, James Franco, and Jeff Bridges come close this year.
So is The Fighter cliched? Only if you look at it that way. If you can't let go of the notion that it's just another triumphant boxing drama, you'll never be able to enjoy the film. But if you look at it from a different angle, you can appreciate it for the naturalistic, gritty, compelling, and rewarding piece of cinema it is. It's a story about family, and letting go of one's demons to accomplish something great. And it stole my heart.
Posted by Kevin K. at Saturday, December 18, 2010