Sunday, February 13, 2011
Caitlin's Review of The Fighter
LIGHT-WEIGHT FILM by Caitlin Murphy
I don’t know much about boxing, but it strikes me that to be any good at it you have to be pretty nuts. (Hell, any inkling to go near a boxing ring is a brand of crazy in my books). Acting’s rather similar though. After all, when your entire M.O. is an intense commitment to pretending to be someone else, mental health issues can’t be looming too far off. Christian Bale is an absolute nut-bar. And I love him for it. Were I his mother or girlfriend, I would surely fret over his oft-cited obsessive approach to character. Thankfully, as a mere audience member, I sit happily in awe.
Based on a true story, The Fighter (how do they keep finding titles for these movies?), directed by David O. Russell, follows Dicky (Bale) and Micky (Mark Wahlberg), boxing brothers living in lower-class Lowell, Massachusetts. Dicky, once considered “the pride of Lowell,” has succumbed to crack addiction: his potential has rotted along with his teeth, intense delusion has set in, and he now serves as (unreliable) support to his brother’s more likely comeback. The brothers’ family ties, which run deep and disturbed, are epitomized by their scary-domineering mother, Alice (Melissa Leo).
There are a few too many ‘on the nose’ moments in The Fighter that Russell should have sanded down. As Micky and his date, Charlene, enter a movie theatre, a joke is made of their attempts to pronounce the title Belle Epoque; an eavesdropping cinema snob (complete with polo sweater over the shoulders) pipes up to correct them. Later, when the couple exits the film, the same nerd is seen nearby. The whole sequence feels neat and easy. And kinda not true. On more than a few occasions the film also dismisses that old “show don’t tell” mantra. You see, apparently, Charlene has a bit of a drinking problem. Or so we’re told. Several times. By her and a bunch of other people. And that’s the real problem: we never actually see it, so it feels tacked on. And in this instance, that’s a shame: Charlene’s “drinking problem,” if truly felt, could have served as interesting counter-point to Dicky’s more outlandish substance abuse. Maybe I’m just sounding picky and petty here, but it’s exactly these kinds of little moments that add up to the bigger problem in The Fighter: the film doesn’t know what tone it wants, what mode it’s in, or let alone what genre. It doesn’t really sit comfortably anywhere. Sometimes this sort of restlessness can be really interesting; and sometimes it’s just messy.
For a film full of characters so profoundly defined by place, Russell’s attention to setting is lacking. There isn’t very much detail in the portrayal of Lowell, and thus a bit of a “you know where trailer trash comes from, right?” shorthand. The politics of class hang pretty awkwardly in the air: sometimes the film seems truly sobered by class differences, and sometimes it falls into a ‘laugh at the locals’ sensibility that confuses things. I’m not sure how you avoid the tension that occurs when you cast movie stars as members of the lower-classes. I think the only real solution is that you don’t. Worked for Debra Granik in Winter’s Bone, another film heavily informed by issues of place and class, which the director navigates beautifully (in my mind, Granik deserves Russell’s Best Director nod).
As an actor, Mark Wahlberg is a great producer. He’s a movie star, of course, and in many ways The Fighter unconsciously ends up being about the difference between movie stars (like him) and actors (like Bale). Wahlberg is a master of ‘telling not showing’; we get to know what he thinks/feels by the content of the lines he utters. And that’s about it. The character of Micky comes across as a blank slate; and if this was the intent – that he has slid into neutral in response to the zany egos suffocating him – then his character’s journey needed to be more about that. Leo, as the Ward matriarch, is all pursed-lips, animal-print outfits and deep cigarette hauls. Her performance is compelling (like Mo’Nique in Precious last year, she has been sweeping awards season in the role of monstrous mother), but her character merited a couple more “alone at night, unable to fall asleep” moments. Micky and Dicky’s many sisters come across as a uniform wall of sneers and teased 90s hair – they are conveyed through caricature: reduction for the sake of convenience. In sum, too many diverging ideas about what character actually is create a film that doesn’t know where it stands in relationship to its subjects.
As far as the cinematography goes in The Fighter, sleep easy Scorsese. There’s nothing really new here in the aesthetic attention to boxing, or thematically in any reimagining of the ‘boxing picture’. The Fighter actually works best when it settles into its supposedly secondary genre of family drama: themes of inter-dependence, addiction and enabling, and our deep commitments to family cohesion. There is a moment when Dicky, trying to calm his exasperated mother, starts singing to her, waiting for her to join in, literally lulling her back to their fucked up norm. What’s familiar is so deeply a part of us that, even when it leads to destruction, we crave it and cave into it. Change – any change – is incredibly hard. What we know is precious to us, not what we might need instead. Yet the film shows us the imperative to discover and go after what we most need too. Besides Bale’s performance, this is its greatest strength.
As an actor, Bale has a reputation for freakish, seemingly masochistic transformations of his body, but it’s really his broader commitment to character and story-telling that is most extraordinary. In the film’s last moments (thank god they don’t fade to black on the triumphant arms-in-air boxing ring shot), the depth of the well Bale draws from is clearest. He drops into the complex tragedy of Dicky’s life so abruptly and fully that I was moved instantly to tears. Yet moved sounds too gentle, as really I felt thrown: TKO.
An Irish director of a one-man show I admired once dismissed my praise of his work by insisting that he only ever gave the actor two directorial responses:
1. “Brilliant” or 2. “I don’t believe you.”
Perhaps too cut and dry, but really, either you believe something or you don’t. And once you kinda don’t, well, you don’t. And once you do, then it is – like Bale – pretty brilliant indeed. The Fighter mostly deserves the second directorial response; but the times that it merits the first, might just make up for that.