Film Review: “The Fighter”

by Jason LeRoy on December 16, 2010

Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Mark Wahlberg in THE FIGHTER. Photo by Jojo Whilden – © 2010 Fighter, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee

directed by: David O. Russell

MPAA: Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.

There are few descriptors more likely to turn me off than “family.” If something is described as a “family film,” or displaying “family values,” I instinctively turn and run the other way. Because in our culture, “family” is still a highly coded word with a very specific definition: heterosexual, conservative, procreative, homogeneous.

And so, as I reflect on the rather lackluster crop of films yielded in 2010, perhaps it is one of this year’s greatest accomplishments that it produced two films that thoughtfully challenge the long-standing standard of what a family film should be: Lisa Cholodenko’s nuanced and sublime The Kids Are All Right, and now David O. Russell’s powerfully riveting The Fighter.

On its surface, The Fighter is merely the marriage of two extremely familiar sub-genres of film: the boxing movie, and the working-class Massachusetts movie. Set in the city of Lowell in the mid-90s, this is the true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), an aspiring boxer being mentored by his half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale) and managed by their mother Alice (Melissa Leo). Dicky is a notorious local celebrity, having spent some time as a professional boxer, once emerging victorious from a fight with Sugar Ray Leonard.

Known as “the pride of Lowell,” Dicky struts around town like a cocky prince, and as the film begins, he is being followed by an HBO camera crew he says are filming a special about his comeback. However, if his alarmingly gaunt and sickly appearance isn’t enough to tip you off, Dicky is also a severe drug addict, a reality that is overlooked by his family. His main enabler is Alice, who is married to Micky’s father, a police officer named George (Jack McGee), with whom she also shares a brawling chorus of big-haired hellbeast daughters.

So really, what we have here is an allegory about the Lohans. Delusional momager? Check. Self-destructive older sibling whose tragic faded glory is the biggest source of family pride? Check. Sadly incompetent younger sibling trying to achieve the same success? Check. But I digress.

Micky’s boxing career isn’t going so well. He has a reputation as a stepping stone that other boxers use to advance through the ranks. He feels trapped by his family, who expect him to become a successful boxer and support them financially, and yet continually compare him unfavorably to Dicky…a drug addict. He also has a young daughter in the custody of her bitchy mother, and unless he becomes successful enough to move into a nicer place, he’ll never get shared custody. All in all, he’s feeling pretty powerless.

But that all starts to change when he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a tough bartender who appreciates Micky for who he is rather than who his family wants him to be. Micky is blindsided by the realization that someone’s love for him could be unrelated to his performance in the ring, while Charlene is repulsed by the insane levels of dysfunction and denial in Micky’s toxic family. And so Charlene empowers Micky to finally stand up to them, which leads to an explosive series of estrangements and hard-won reconciliations that never flinch from depicting the ugly consequences of broken family ties.

This is strong, stirring stuff, with one of the finest ensembles of actors this year. While director David O. Russell has a well-known reputation for clashing with actors, here he brings out the very best in his cast. Wahlberg is playing my favorite of his types here: the downtrodden underdog. Maybe it’s just because I’ll always love him best in Boogie Nights, but I prefer my Marky Mark to be hapless and hangdog. He graciously underplays here, registering a subtle but masterfully controlled performance, allowing the three showier roles around him to get more attention (including awards attention, as Bale, Adams, and Leo have all emerged as likely Oscar candidates, while Wahlberg is viewed as a long-shot).

As Dicky, Christian Bale works his usual magic, disappearing completely into the performance. Simply put, this is his Oscar moment. Would you believe he’s never even been nominated? His likeliest competition is boring old Geoffrey Rush from the similarly boring and old The King’s Speech, and Rush is a previous winner, so hopefully the Academy will reward Bale’s electric high-wire act.

Perhaps one of the main reasons this film transcends its genre limitations is that it gives us not one but two powerhouse female characters. As Alice, the chameleonic Melissa Leo (a previous Oscar nominee for her devastating turn in Frozen River) is alternately ferocious and defeated as Alice. Leo serves us plenty of Alice’s indomitable business matriarch front, but it’s the glimpses into her profound sadness and fear that make this a brilliant performance.

And of course there’s two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, giving the most bold and unexpected performance of her career. There was some derisive chortling when it was announced that Adams would be playing the role of a foul-mouthed bartender, but let me assure you: she knocks this shit out of the park. This is what it looks like to watch an actor step fearlessly out of her comfort zone with 100% commitment. Adams and Leo are both likely candidates for Best Supporting Actress, and hopefully the vote won’t be split between them, because then the Oscar would go to Helena Bonham Carter, who certainly deserves an Oscar, but not for The King’s Speech.

This is a fantastic and unexpected return to form for Russell, whose last film was the highly stylized conceptual comedy I Heart Huckabees (2004). Not since Flirting With Disaster (1996) has he displayed such an earnest attention to the emotional details of his characters. And rather than indulge in the flashy photography and editing of Three Kings (1999), Russell uses a deliberate pace and unaffected filmmaking to tell this story of grace, grappling, and grit.

The Fighter is one of the year’s best films. See it.

RIYL: working-class Massachusetts family dramas, boxing movies

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