Dec 15, 2010

The Fighter

A friend of mine says that Christian Bale is a bad actor that picks good roles. In my view, that alone makes him half a good actor. She is impatient with Bale's physical transformations, the emaciations, etc, but like Robert De Niro, Daniel Day Lewis and Sean Penn before him, Bale delivers tremendous performances underneath all that method. In The Fighter, based on a true story, Bale plays Dicky Eklund, a crackhead and boxing trainer of his half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). I don't know how he manages to have a solid body and an emaciated face; but from the very first scene of the movie one is unsure if one will be able to endure such intense showboating. By the time the movie ends, however, Bale has given a performance of enormous emotional hunger, tenderness and grace, rooted in an incredibly sympathetic understanding of what it takes to be a total fuck up. Bale usually does not play men with outsize personalities and he goes at Dicky with such ferocious gusto that it borders on the hammy. However, in every scene it is completely clear what makes him tick. It is a wonderful character. A man who squanders his talent and potential, a weak man with a huge need for attention. A man who feels both an intense joie de vivre and unendurable shame. Bale took my breath away in the moments where feeling seeps through Dicky's boisterous personality. At the very least, he deserves an Oscar nomination, and so far, he's my front runner.
One look at his mother Alice, also ferociously played by Melissa Leo, is enough to understand why Dicky and his brother are champion losers. I'm happy to see that Leo is fast becoming our own Judi Dench or Helen Mirren. Let her swipe the red carpet with awards. As with Bale, her characterization seems too broad at the beginning, but she also finds a way inside her character. It is a testament to her enormous talent that at one point all I wanted was for someone to punch her in the face. At first she seems pushy and conniving, living off the talents of Micky, since those of Dicky have been  wasted, but by the end one comes around to her point of view. She loves her nine kids (seven of whom are a bunch of women with the scariest hair since Chewbacca) fiercely, possessively and so much that they can't get away from her chokehold.
One of the producers of this movie, directed by David O. Russell, is Darren Aronofsky.  While Aronofsky never shies away from the over the top and the ridiculous, he is much more subtle than Russell with his actors. Russell is not a director of such finesse. In The Fighter everything is huge and extra amplified and it takes the audience a while to get used to the characters, and for the actors to disappear behind the strong accents and the wigs and the ridiculous 80s costumes and find the actual meat in their roles. Still, if he is unsubtle with actors, he's good with the anarchic energy of his cast of working class Irish characters from Lowell, Massachusetts.
As boxing movies go, The Fighter is a boxing movie for boxing fans, not a feel good movie that happens to be about boxing. The fights are extremely well staged and they are narrated by what sounds like the actual sportscasters, so they are very exciting and suspenseful, which is no small feat. This is not the stylized operatic ballet of Raging Bull. There are no scenes of blood spurting or fists crunching a jaw in slow motion. Wahlberg seems to be valiantly taking and landing every punch. Both Walhberg and Bale seem to have acquired the grace and the speed of actual boxers, and they are very convincing (at least to my eyes).
What makes The Fighter better than any against all odds sports movie, is that in this case the boxer is fighting not to be destroyed by his own family. This movie can be described with the immortal words of Phillip Larkin: "Family. They fuck you up".
Micky Ward is not fighting against a corrupt system, or his own lack of faith in himself, or all that inspiring crap. He is fighting against a toxic mother and a brother who confuse family loyalty with a meal check, who abuse this poor schmo even if they truly love him, who invest all their wrongness into Micky making everything right. They think, benightedly, "who better to train and manage you than your own blood?". And they are spectacular screw-ups. Champions in lack of self-awareness, infuriatingly irrational, they keep him down in the ghetto while sincerely thinking they are doing the best for him.
The movie has too many scenes of the family torturing this guy, and by extension the audience. He wants to break away from their spell over and over but he just can't. Wahlberg is perfectly suited to a role like this. An actor of not only limited range, but almost no expression, he still has a core of quiet determination and authenticity that serves his character well. I am thrilled that someone gave Amy Adams a role where she could be something other than a cherub. She holds her own as a tough as nails bartender who falls in love with Micky and fights his chaotic family with both smarts and physical violence. In this movie and this milieu, everyone's a fighter.
A subtler directorial hand and better writing could have improved The Fighter. I could have done with much less of the distracting soundtrack and several cliches (do we need yet another detox scene in jail?) But it is a strange movie that starts unconvincingly and gets better as it goes along. By the end you can't shake off these incredible people and the talented performers that make them come alive. The movie is still growing on me as we speak.

1 comment: