Film review by: Witney Seibold
David O. Russell‘s “The Fighter” is a stellar character study that is, oddly, about its least interesting character. Mark Wahlberg plays the real-life Mickey Ward, a would-be boxer from a trashier era of Massachusetts in the mid 1990s. Mickey is a pretty talented fighter, and a hard-working athlete, and ended up winning several titles in his career. His family, though, is a rogue’s gallery of stage moms, drug addicts, and plaster-haired harpies that would feel at home in an early John Waters film. Mickey’s family is so loud and has such presence, that Mickey feels beat down and silenced in their presence. He almost comes across as a Dickensian cipher; a character that the action happens to, rather than being the instigator of any action.
The instigator of the bulk of “The Fighter’s” actions is Mickey’s brother Dickie, played by the excellent Christian Bale. Dickie is a crack addict who spends most of his days bumming about with his crack addict buddies in a crack house. The drug imagery is at once cliched and deadly accurate. Dickie twitches and grins and sputters through his scenes, bragging about his glory days as a fighter, and how, that one time, he actually knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Didn’t knock him out, but surely knocked him down. This achievement has Dickie in the position of local hero, and only helps to facilitate his bad behavior.
Mickey’s mom is the worst kind of stage mom, and is played by the equally excellent Melissa Leo. She is always on the phone, trying to book fights for Mickey, using her slimy charm, Dickie’s residual fame, and rarely mentions Mickey’s actual talent. She only, however, manages to get him matches with people who are sure to beat him; in one fight, he is given a last-minute replacement opponent of a fighter who is twice Mickey’s size. Not much of a chance there. Mickey has a large pile of adult sisters as well, who seem to speak a certain language unto themselves. They travel in a pack, with their bouffant hairdos, stirrup pants, bad teeth, and suspicious looks. They look as if someone has split Edith Massey into several smaller pieces, and made them a bodyguard.
Mickey’s redemption from this mire of familial cacophony comes in the form of a hot bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams, all dolled up), whom is very lovely, a fact that “The Fighter’s” cameraman goes out of his way to accentuate; there is one scene where Adams is simply exiting a car, but the cameraman is sure to noticeably dip the lens so the audience can get a good gander at her legs. Charlene sees how Mickey’s family is keeping him down, a fact that Mickey had acknowledged to himself years ago, but is too afraid to confront. The film’s central drama comes from the conflict between Mickey’s need to succeed and his loyalty to his borderline ghoulish family.
But is “ghoulish” the right word? Here’s where the brilliance of “The Fighter” starts to show through, though. In the first two thirds of the film, Mickey’s family is seen as an impediment that must be overcome. But as the film continues to progress, the characters actually being to have serious discussions and fights, and actually begin to make apologies. Not the weepy, Hollywood apologies, but the real-life kind; the kind that may not say everything that needs to be said, but at least displays a begrudging need to compromise. By the film’s end, the characters aren’t exactly huggy friends, but a few people have changed a little bit, and they finally understand that Mickey needs them all enough to get along for the time being. That “The Fighter” has no weepy climax or hackneyed revelation works in its favor.
Another word about Bale. He is one of the best actors of his generation. He is willing to go to some pretty extreme places for his craft, having starved himself for several roles (including this one), and tortured his body in ways a lot of big-name actors aren’t willing to do. He has a scary edge to each of his performances that have him stand out from many of his peers. He plays a drug-addicted maniac in “The Fighter,” but one who manages to still be charming somehow. More impressively, though, he manages to play to the other characters, not standing out in relief to the rest of the action. Bale has not received enough acclaim for his dark performances in films like “Rescue Dawn,” “American Psycho,” “The Machinist,” and even the overblown and lurid cop drama “Harsh Times.”
“The Fighter” is a film that kind of surprises you with how hard it impacts. It doesn’t feel like it’s hitting you hard, but when you leave the theater, you feel it anyway.