After finally seeing the delightful Silver Linings Playbook, it reminded me of the director’s other work, a real labour of love which stalled in development hell. What was finally produced was a blackly comic, interesting movie about boxing. Whether or not you typically go for boxing movies, The Fighter is a really good character drama between a dysfunctional family with more tension than you could shake a stick at, plus some really well done boxing action.
This is a movie that is both reflective of David O. Russell’s flexibility and his limitations. It’s the true story of two brothers who are boxers, one’s a druggy fuck up whose best days are long behind him, holding on to his one memory of fighting Sugar Ray Leonard. That is Dickey Ekland, played by the magnificently intense Christian Bale and in many ways the core of the movie. Then there’s his brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), who is also a boxer going the same way as his brother. Both are run by their mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo). The movie is set in Lowell, Massachusetts which is a really rather depressing, bleak piece of Americana. It’s poor and blue collar and nicely shot, especially in regards to the community and the closeness between town and their star boxer, right down to the abuse in the street when he loses fights. You can really feel the stigma attached to losing a fight when you’re the only worthwhile thing to come out of a town that’s seen its best days long gone.
What makes this movie interesting is both the wonderful acting and the genuine nature of the dialogue and the tensions behind so many of the relationships. In many ways it is a typical boxing story from the same stock as Rocky or Raging Bull, except that it has a bit more depth and remarkably it’s a true story made in collaboration between boxers and David O. Russell. The ending credits show just how similar the two leads look compared with the real subjects.
The Fighter is another example of cinéma vérité as it is largely filmed as if a documentary crew is with all the characters. There is shake and movement with running and long shots to close pans into the various people. It has a blunt documentary style but it also has the intelligence to acknowledge this because for a large part of the movie Dickey has a documentary crew following him doing what he thinks is a piece on old boxers but it’s really about the damage drugs do and this is one of the central plots of the movie. The cornerstone is on the drugs and the damage done on young men with no qualifications, who are not particularly focused or smart. This key plot point works really well as you can see history repeating itself as Micky fights not to get into the same spiral as his brother.
Having no knowledge of boxing I found the backroom dealings and details for setting up fights fascinating especially as the behind the scenes negations is something that you never quite get the same feel with older boxing movies. The fights over Micky is where the best parts of the movie lie. There’s a rather epic bitch fight between Micky’s girlfriend Charlene (surprisingly played by Amy Adams, deciding not to be pigeonholed as a good girl) and his mother over his work schedule. There’s a real matriarchal leadership as Micky’s dad and their cop friend both assist in the training and managing but yet are almost invisible in the diatribes of swearing between mother and sons.
I must return to my initial statements about David O. Russell’s limitations. There’s more than a passing familiarity between The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, which share many themes such as family, grotty towns on the east coast of America, lots of swearing and monomania figures. You can even put his previous movie, I Heart Huckabees, into a similar vein as it’s another movie built around misfits and small town, east coast America. He is undoubtedly a good director but the pedant in me can’t help but wonder what would have happened if someone like Darren Aronofsky had directed this, especially thinking about what he did for Black Swan and his previous work. This is also an interesting example of a successful actor-dominated movie, with Mark Wahlberg taking a large amount of effort in the producing and the choosing of the director. The rights were bought in 2003 but filming didn’t start till 2009 so it’s a genuine example of a labour of love and that I think is best compliment I can give it.
Review by Harry Riedl