Thicker than water
I am not sure if you’ve seen The Fighter yet, but in the luxury of grandparental babysitters, we saw it this week. On the list of films I desperately wanted to see this holiday season, the Ward boxing biopic was not at the very top of my list. But in retrospect that was a mistake. I loved it. Not because it was a perfect movie, and certainly not a flawless one. But somehow it managed to make me feel like I was not watching an underdog-takes-the-crown sports movie, while also giving me the deep emotional satisfaction of that sort of movie’s ending.
I really love the physicality of sports movies and boxing movies even more. I like watching the montages of people pushing themselves to the limit, sweating through their hoodies, performing feats with a jump-rope that make my heart rate rise just watching, and showing off increasingly sculpted abs. The externalization of personal transformation is exhilarating and I am a total sucker for the belief in reinvention these montages rely on. What made this movie so much better for me than just a great underdog rises above story was the fact that Micky never could finally overcome the web of familial, social, and psychological entanglements that threatened to choke his life out because those very entanglements were part of what made him who he is. That is a very difficult dynamic to explore, and this movie did it with great sensitivity. I both wanted Micky to break from his manipulative family and I dreaded what it would mean about the kind of man he was becoming if he did. Couldn’t you just see that story play out? Micky moves to Vegas and makes it big, raking in the cash, growing corrupt, and then, perhaps in some great twist, rediscovering his humanity in reconciliation with his downtrodden, backwater, post-industrially languishing family. How much more satisfying to watch him, a fundamentally passive man, try to make peace with the little boy in him that wants to idealize his brother and love his mother, and the man who knows he is being taken advantage of?
And let’s pause for a moment to praise one of the greatest things about the movie: Christian Bale. Everyone is talking about his performance, and it was really fantastic. I love Christian Bale. I especially love his stranger, off-beat roles, like his work in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn. I was amazed by his kinetic intelligence: how do you master both the stalting limp of drug induced neurological damage and the agility, speed, and grace of a world-class athlete? Not to mention the affection and self-interest he could combine in one rotten-toothed smile.
Part of the challenge comes from the fact that the real life subject you are portraying is going to watch you on the big screen. And that might have been the strangest, most troubling, and most fascinating things about the movie to me: telling the story of a fundamentally flawed family in full light of that family. And I have to think that David O. Russell wanted this to be one of the themes he was exploring. As we watch the family’s shock, horror, and humiliation as their worst secrets are revealed to the world in the HBO documentary on crack addiction, how are we not supposed to see ourselves, gasping in shock at every cruel, manipulative, stupid thing the family is doing in the next incarnation of a public airing of their dirty laundry? That moment was the one where I thought, OK, Russell knows what he is doing. He is warning us to be careful how we judge these people. To think about what it means to try and reconstruct a person’s life for public viewing enjoyment, with their crack-addled ticks and god-awful perms in a way that does not deny them their humanity. If the movie felt flawed it was because I felt uncomfortable the entire time. Embarrassed to be so exhilarated by one person’s ability to perfectly mimic another’s shortcomings. But maybe that is what fundamentally makes it a great movie afterall.
I would love to know what you thought if you saw it. I could write a whole different post about the landscape and cinematography of the film and all that it raised about the dark underbelly of globalization, but I will pause for now. And readers, if you saw it, I would love your feedback. What are the ethics of portraying a living person? Did you buy the story?
Merry Christmas in the meantime!
Thank you so much for recommending that we review this movie together! I wasn’t actually going to bother going to see it, but I’m so glad I did! Double fun – I went with my dad, who used to be a boxer…and so our perspectives were so different. He lived a part of that life and resonated with the physicality of it all (both in the ring, and with regards to the more ‘street’ versions of fights). And I, to my sick feeling, am probably much more like that awful couple at the French movie who read the review in the New York Times and was excited about the cinematography. And while the movie – as you gesture toward – comes down on the side of the family, of the working class guy, of my dad, acting as if that group of folks are their real audience, the fact is that it’s made for the New York Times guy too.
And I think that’s why I loved it! I don’t know if you noticed, but right after mocking the New York Times guy and his excitement for great cinematography, they cut to what for me was one of the most spectacular shots in the whole film – the camera tracing the phone cord down to Alice’s mouth booking another fight, cigarette smoke swirling into the living room scene of the sister chorus scattered around. The scenes book-ended the joke being played – as you put it so perfectly, don’t judge yet! Don’t judge any of them. We’re all in there somewhere. And the portrayals walk the line of parody and reality so perfectly that no one is exempt.
You’re dead on – Christian Bale blew my mind (and has now redeemed himself from that Terminator 4 debacle which, as far as I was concerned, was a redemption more impossible than that of this film’s family!). But just like the amazing line between pathetic addict and phenomenal athlete that you mention, the film itself played a line of pathetic clichés and heart-warming – sorry, make that constantly heart-breaking – redemption scenes. So much could have been dumb – the mother hitting the trash cans with her car, the little kid echoing Dickie punching the lockers, slow punches to faces in the ring with spittle flying dramatically, Alice noting “God has a plan,” even Dickie’s continual jumps from the crack house window…and yet these moments worked because they felt true.
They reminded us (especially at this time of year) of the dumb things all our families do that nevertheless make sense – that make family family. And I think these for me culminated as Dickie sang, “Here I go again on my own…” into Mickey’s ear before the title match, holding his head as if in prayer, anointing his brother to pass on the mantle of Lowell’s hero. The moment had all the elements of corny sports movies, yet it had so much more too. Because they had worked for it. They earned the cheese. Broken though it was, I wanted to see the brothers’ love. And I wanted to revel in it.
I can’t sign off without a huge shout out for Amy Adams! I thought she was brilliant! Her deadpan expression while spouting off profanity after profanity was made even more spectacular by her gutsy willingness to do nudish scenes without the perfection of her typical movie actress physique and make-up. She looked like the hot chick from Lowell – complete with small belly and bad eyeliner…but not too much. I have long appreciated Ms. Adams, but this one cinched it. She nailed that role!
And of all the ways both self-preservation and loyalty are both performed in this film, hers was possibly the least dramatic, but still lovely – she was right to leave, she was right to come back. Being able to hold both of those truths together is what makes for some of the most complex and beautiful relationships in life.
Ok my friends, what’s next? True Grit?? From redemption flick to vengeance flick?