The Fighter (2010)
Dir. David O. Russell; Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
The Ward brothers are heroes in their hometown. Neighbors call Dicky (Christian Bale) “the pride of Lowell” for once knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard. In the opening sequence, Dicky and Micky (Mark Wahlberg) stroll down the street, chatting with and hugging people they pass, shadow boxing, posing for pictures. Dicky – cigarette behind his ear, baseball cap on backwards, infectious grin – loves the attention. He dances down the street, kissing girls and signing autographs, slinging an arm over his brother’s shoulder. Micky walks more slowly and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. He’s a boxer with a reputation as “a stepping stone” for better fighters. At 31, he wants to take a last shot at winning the welterweight title, but first, he has to get past his family.
David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010) focuses on the deeply flawed Eklund-Ward family and its attempt to win Micky a welterweight title. The mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), dominates her family, chain-smoking and asking, “Who’s gonna take care of you better than family, huh?” She swears that with her as Micky’s manager and Dicky as his trainer, he’s sure to win. Dicky was a great boxer in his time, before he began skipping Micky’s training sessions to frequent a crack house. Being stuck with a manager and trainer who barely know what they’re doing does not bode well for Micky, who gets put in fights with guys 20 pounds bigger than him – guys who, Dicky assures him, “just got off the couch.” To which Micky replies, “He did not just get off the f**king couch. If he did, I’m going to buy a couch like that.” Yet Micky remains close to his dysfunctional family until he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), who convinces him to try another trainer. She is the only one who can match Micky’s family; when one of his sisters calls her a skank, Charlene threatens, “Don’t call me a skank – I’ll rip that nasty hair right out of your f**king head.”
The driving force of the film is Melissa Leo, who brilliantly combines explosive abuse with what she believes is motherly love. Everything that she does, she claims, she does for the family. The screenplay embodies her character well, and Leo delivers each line with the incisive snap one would expect of such a bitter woman. During one meeting with Micky, Charlene tries to participate; Alice scoffs,and turns away to smoke: “I don’t know who you are or why you’re talking.” She’s an extremely complicated character; despite all of the trouble she subjects her family to, there are moments of lucidity where we glimpse her true melancholy. Every time she pursues Dicky to the crack house and watches him throw himself out of a second-story window in an effort to escape her, her face crumples in pain. Leo is able to masterfully showcase the many facets of Alice’s character, a performance that won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Similarly powerful are the performances of Bale and Adams. Bale has the mannerisms of the real-life Dick Eklund down pat, and he integrates Dicky’s jocularity and immaturity with the troubled emotions that lead him to his eventual arrest. And Adams as Charlene is a force to be reckoned with as she battles not only Alice but also with Dicky and the many sisters. This was perhaps the role that propelled her to her later success in films like American Hustle, (2013) Big Eyes, (2014) Arrival, (2016) proving that, even cast against type, Adams is a formidable actress who can easily portray a multifaceted and difficult character.
But next to the stellar performances of Leo and Bale, Wahlberg’s ends up being almost forgettable. Perhaps that was intentional, given how loud other characters are. Wahlberg’s performance is convincing and at times poignant, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. However, the film’s title character is simply outmatched by the prowess of better actors, who dominate him not only in the story but also in terms of their performance.
Surrounding all of these complex characters, the camera circulates, often in long panning or tracking shots. The cinematography draws a parallel between fights inside the ring and fights outside of the ring. In both instances, scenes are often filmed in close up to demonstrate a character’s facial expression, cutting from one character to another and back to demonstrate an exchange, whether that be of blows or biting comments. The camera often circles scenes, moving as would a boxer in the ring, lending an air of apprehensiveness to the events.
While every boxing film forces its protagonist to endure battles outside of the ring, The Fighter surrounds Micky with misguided family members that cannot be easily knocked out. Ostensibly about boxing, the film ends up being more about family dynamics. This additional complication leads the viewer to form complex emotional bonds with the characters and focus on the larger scope of the narrative, not just the swinging fists in the ring, and leads to a much more satisfying conclusion.