Produced by Mark Wahlberg and David Hoberman
Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Produced and directed by Danny Boyle
Screenplay by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
Distributed by Fox Searchlight
Mark Wahlberg produced The Fighter and convincingly plays its protagonist, “Irish” Micky Ward, a talented, tenacious, but far from spectacular boxer. Relentless and disciplined, Ward rebounded from a string of early losses to win and briefly hold championship belts from two of the game’s gaggle of sanctioning bodies, one in 1997, the other in 2000.
The film follows the traditional formula of its kind, moving from failure to redemption, but doesn’t indulge in the allegorical impulses common to the genre. Its Ward is not a proletarian in the grip of capitalist exploitation. He is a journeyman pugilist hoping to score some good paydays before age retires him. Wahlberg and Ward are close friends, and the actor wanted to tell the boxer’s story as honestly as possible. He cast most of the roles himself and chose for his director David O. Russell, a filmmaker he trusts, having worked with him twice before. For realism’s sake, he hired several nonactors from Ward’s old neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, a precinct much like his own childhood town, Dorchester. Ward’s trainer, Mickey O’Keefe, is played by O’Keefe himself.
The result is obviously a labor of love. You sense the commitment to things-as-they-were in every frame. The boxing scenes are absolutely credible with none of the roundhouse exaggerations and bloody carnage of the Rocky franchise. And while the narrative can’t avoid the genre’s working-class clichés, it neatly reinvents them. When a woman takes her frying pan to her husband’s head, the skillet is wielded with such unnerving aplomb that it’s a knockout, figuratively speaking.
In the message department, The Fighter doesn’t follow its precursors. There are no big political statements. Instead, Russell and his writers seem to have seen in Ward’s career an opportunity to have some sport with the dizzier reaches of Dr. Phil’s daily therapy sessions on national television. That’s as high as the film’s symbolic ambitions rise. This is not a put-down. If, as I think, the association is intentional, it makes dramatic sense. Ward’s family could easily provide the good doctor with weeks of grist for his psychologizing mill. They constitute a locus classics of the horrors of family dysfunction.
Russell suggests that Ward’s boxing style was an extension of his home life. With eight siblings—seven sisters and a brother—all brooded over by a shrewish mother, he has far too many people telling him how to conduct his life. His sisters complain about the “skanks” he dates. His mother insists on managing his career, embarrassing him further by appointing his crack-addled half-brother, scapegrace Dicky Eklund, to be his trainer. Worse, she often talks as though Micky’s boxing is merely a holding action until her beloved older son, a former Golden Glove champion, can make his much-anticipated comeback.
According to the film, the long-suffering Ward put up with these insults without much complaint, even though it must have occurred to him that his family’s behavior was holding him back. Only when his father persuades him to ask out a local barmaid do things begin to change. Charlene is what he needs, a woman the equal of his mother: stubborn, foul-mouthed, and ruthlessly imperious. Under her influence, he breaks from his family long enough to set his own course.
Dr. Phil undoubtedly would label Dicky Eklund a passive-aggressive narcissist. Dicky says he’s behind Micky, but he’s clearly jealous of him. He doesn’t actively sabotage his brother’s training; he just fails to show up for his workouts and neglects to verify fight contracts. Will the promoters honor their agreement, or throw Micky in with an opponent who outweighs him by 20 pounds? Eklund is too busy nursing his dreams of past glory to care. In 1978 he performed creditably against Sugar Ray Leonard, knocking the Olympian down and then going the distance in what would prove a losing effort. It was an accomplishment from which he never recovered. At 40 in the film, he’s still talking manically about his brush with greatness. Befogged by pipe dreams, he doesn’t even understand the purpose of an HBO documentary in which he’s agreed to appear. He thinks it’s about his impending ring comeback. But the crew of filmmakers following him through his neighborhood’s grimy streets is making a film entitled High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.
To play Dicky, Christian Bale seems to have gone on a two-year Weight Watcher’s regimen. His eyes are sunken, his cheeks hollowed. As an old Irish expression has it, he looks as though he might at any moment fall through the ass of his pants. Whether walking or running, he moves with a loping, loose-limbed gait. He seems in constant flight from pursuers. That’s not surprising: The Lowell police regard him as the presumptive suspect for any petty crime brought to their attention. He finally gets himself jailed for the manly trade of pimping his Cambodian girlfriend and then robbing her johns.
While Bale’s role is the showiest, the other players are equally fine. As Ward, Wahlberg makes good use of what have often been liabilities in his acting career. His soft voice and oddly squinting eyes have made him seem more the loyal but bewildered sidekick than the confident leading man. Here, however, his affect and manner mesh well with Ward’s dutiful, quietly determined personality.
Playing Ward’s mother, Melissa Leo displays the commanding presence that only a fully deluded woman can readily muster. Her cocked hip supports her elbow as she puffs meaningfully on a filter tip and orders others about, her eyes widening in disbelief when anyone dares to oppose her will. Finishing a phone call to an ESPN functionary, she carelessly holds out the receiver, knowing it will be taken instantly by one of her many daughters and replaced on its base. She’s a piece of work, as they say, but Amy Adams is her match. As Charlene, Adams has curled her lips into a perpetual streetwise sneer, vaporizing her former roles as a princess and an ingénue. Here, she’s a genuine bitch.
The Fighter is worth seeing for its performances alone.
Speaking of performances, don’t miss James Franco playing canyon climber Aron Ralston in 127 Hours—as long as you can stand a few minutes of gore.
The film is director Danny Boyle’s account of Ralston’s much-reported 2003 ordeal. While Ralston was descending into Utah’s Blue John Canyon, a modest boulder fell on him, crushing his right arm and pinning it immovably to the rock face. Having foolishly neglected to tell anyone where he was going, and with no means to call for help, Ralston realized he would die unless . . . well, we all know about that unless. Boyle’s narrative is an 82-minute countdown to the moment when we will watch, if we dare, Ralston free himself by cutting off his arm just below his elbow.
Is this legitimate drama or merely sadistic spectacle? I say the former. Boyle has powerfully distilled what is significant in Ralston’s experience, especially when he has the climber telling himself that all his past life has been a preparation for this encounter with the rock. He has chosen it, and it has chosen him from all eternity. Extreme events often take on this uncanny aspect. Indeed, all of life has this character, if only we could look at matters in the whole. One way or another, we’re all going to find ourselves inescapably wedged against a rock wall.
Boyle doesn’t pretend to explain Ralston, but he does toy with some hints. In his approach to the canyon, Ralston meets two young ladies who have lost their way. As he offers them guidance, he notices that they are staring at him suspiciously. He’s neglected to remove the bandanna with which he’s covered his lower face as a defense against rock dust, and so must seem an outlaw to them. Taking the bandanna off, he laughs and points to his uncovered face. “I can’t take this off.” It’s a weak joke that seems unintentionally revealing. If he’s wearing his face as he would a mask, he must be hiding something.
Other clues appear. He carries a video camera and constantly records himself even when he’s driving his truck or riding his mountain bike. He’s an actor, the leading man in his own make-believe drama. Later, when he realizes that he cannot free himself from the boulder’s grip, he goes on camera again, this time to interview himself. In the hectoring, ironic voice of a vulgar television host, he asks himself how he’s come to be in such a predicament. He replies softly, ashamedly, “I’m a big, hard hero; I can do everything on my own.” In his imagination, the host and his studio audience break into riotous, mocking laughter.
During his dark night of the soul, Ralston has taken off his face to confront his heretofore heedless egoism. That’s what he’s been hiding. The rest of the story couldn’t be simpler or more horrifying, as the film moves inexorably toward what we know is ahead. Some commentators have referred to this as an exercise in torture porn. It’s not. Boyle gives us an unflinching yet restrained visual account of the amputation to make us feel its full impact on Ralston along with what enabled him to do it.
Just before he takes the knife to his arm, Ralston has several visions—some hallucinatory, others imagined. He sees his family sitting on a couch in the canyon with him, regarding him quietly without reproach. He’s forgiven in advance. Then another image appears, a boy of three years or so who gazes at him with seemingly plaintive wonder as if beseeching some explanation. He’s the boy he’s never going to father should he fail to free himself. Though left unsaid, it seems that the boy and his unknown mother are calling Ralston from his boyish self-dramatization into the real world of unavoidable responsibilities and irrevocable deeds. In doing so, they make of him a big, hard hero indeed.
The drama of the film resides in the prospect of watching a human being undergo hideous suffering in the hope of achieving his rebirth. It is, in other words, a variant of the essential Christian mystery: How do we maintain hope in the face of mortal terror?