|How You Like Me Now?|
In 2008, director Darren Aronofsky released The Wrestler, a quiet, poetic drama that examined an aging wrestler coping with breakdown, erosion, and an ultimate redemption that could either end up ruining or liberating him. That film starred Mickey Rourke in one of the greatest acting feats in all of movie history. David O. Russell’s 2010 piece The Fighter shares the same qualities that made The Wrestler so great (and even features Aronofsky as executive producer), yet also deviates away from the formula that Aronofsky employs. Though The Fighter features a string of heavy, groundbreaking performances all around, the idea of redemption explored in The Wrestler is distributed amongst all characters, not just the eponymous figure. Whereas a film like The Wrestler features a character facing internal struggles in order to identify his role in a society that no longer has any use for him, The Fighter focuses more on struggling with the people that surround the main protagonists, allowing them to achieve a sense of reconciliation, rehabilitation, and reunion not often found in any generic sports film.
Mark Wahlberg not only stars as Micky Ward, the real-life underdog Irish-American boxer from , but also serves as the creative mind behind most of the developmental stages of the film. Wahlberg was involved in the project way back in 2005, meticulously studying the fighting techniques, mannerisms, and speech styles of the real-life Micky Ward in order to convincingly play him, going so far as to having Ward actually move into his home for observation. During the filming of Wahlberg’s other movies prior to The Fighter (such as The Departed, We Own the Night, Max Payne, etc.), he trained rigorously for the role, employing professional boxer Manny Pacquiao and trainer Freddie Roach to perfect his physique and boxing approach. Darren Aronofsky was originally slated to direct, but dropped out in favor of director David O. Russell while he maintained an executive producer credit. Yet The Fighter remains Wahlberg’s passion project, giving homage to his/Ward’s shared working class Irish-American upbringings through a handful of exceptional acting performances that even go so far as to outshine Wahlberg’s.
The film opens with a shot of Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) being filmed for an HBO documentary, with Eklund boasting about Ward’s successes in the hopes that HBO is documenting what he believes is his comeback. What he doesn't know is that the filmmakers that surround the two are actually chronicling the downfall of Eklund’s career through crack cocaine addiction. Here we have the film beginning its parlay from a grungy working class family’s nostalgic reflections into a refreshing story of self-redemption. Russell creates a rather shoddy foundation for this idea of deliverance, since Christian Bale’s performance in the opening scene, which echoes the eerie, crazed desperation of The Machinist, evokes a sense of fragility and instability that feels genuine. Yet Russell seeks absolution in this film, turning his eye on Eklund’s belief that HBO is supposedly filming Ward’s boxing comeback to relieve the burden of past failures and deplorable histories. Those first few shots of the two protagonists witness Bale in one of the most fantastic acting performances of his entire career, definitely worth noting his warranted Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor not so long ago. Wahlberg’s presence in this scene manages to generate an affecting miniature rendition of an introspective artist, his withdrawn and reserved role (juxtaposed with Bale’s laid-back vivacity) characterizing his presentation of Micky Ward in The Fighter.
What would seem like a slack and passive performance on the pages of the screenplay is actually injected with a touching sense of human confliction conveyed with cerebral authenticity and poise on the screen. Wahlberg’s widely unsung acting in this film displays a silhouetted, troubled figure who has to juggle his own re-emerging boxing career, a developing romance with bartender Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), and the support of his family that he doesn’t want to abandon amidst the heavy burdens of personal and professional growth. One shot after another, Wahlberg simply exists: deep, reserved, nuanced. We see shots of him in silhouettes through windows, with his head down for extended periods of time, with eyes inadvertently gazing off-screen as if anxious and contemplative, all establishing his character’s innate aloofness and a simple sense of fatigue with life, with family, with boxing. More emotion and power can be found through Wahlberg’s minimalist approach, with his somber and withdrawn nature, than a heated rant or a tragic, tearful breakdown.
Appropriately, The Fighter’s opening title shot is set to The Heavy’s song “How You Like Me Now?” operating as an unofficial theme that bookends both ends of the film. Ward and Eklund are seen working road construction. Both are also affixed to their current state of inertia – Ward appears unmotivated in revamping his career, preferring to stick to his present state and pursue a romantic relationship with Fleming while Eklund slowly deteriorates with crack cocaine addiction. From David O. Russell’s depiction of both characters’ dormant, existential torments, the film gradually unfolds its reconciliatory path towards catharsis. The promise of change, through the form of an HBO documentary, ultimately collects and unremittingly displays on the screen the personal flaws of the characters. Christian Bale’s relaxed and easy-going personality on the surface gradually succumbs to a sense of drug-crazed desperation behind the laughter and smiles. He also displays some extreme weight loss after his bulky stockiness in Terminator Salvation and The Dark Knight, illustrating his dedication to adapting to a role, despite its potential for health risks (His ridiculous weight loss can also be found in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn). Yet in spite of Bale’s dark and somber performance at some of the bleakest points in the film, he can still sustain the look of a scrappy, scruffy neighborhood kid that is surprisingly goofy at times. The obvious example is a specific scene of him jumping out a window to escape his probing mother (Melissa Leo), but that’s another story.
Befitting Ward’s early disinterest in pursuing a past life, ’s character Charlene Fleming (with some shades of Blake Lively in The Town) appears the perfect figure to befriend the boxer. Fleming is a tough broad with dreams of success, yet she knows she’ll never make it, seeing as she dropped out from college and is coming from a working class neighborhood. Her own surface similarities to the closeted redemptive nature of Ward point to the film’s continuing rush towards climactic change. Yet Ward’s seven feisty, bleach-blond sisters frequently denounce Fleming as an “MTV girl,” a flashy piece of trash. is adamant in responding to the seven sisters’ verbal offenses, showing resilience in her stature (besides one scene where she physically attacks one of the sisters, but it seems justified). It’s a heavy role, no doubt, and handles her character with enough poise and strength to attain an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Nevertheless, refrains from truly breaking out as the prevailing female figure in the movie, as Melissa Leo delivers a tempestuous, Oscar-winning performance as Alice Ward, mother to both fighters and the seven sisters. Well-intentioned and vigorous, Alice Ward displays an authentic motherly figure in The Fighter, yet she often finds herself overly-manipulative and puts too much pressure on Micky Ward. On the screen, she’s commanding as the manager of the boxer, but of course, the tension and action lie outside the boxing realm. She, along with the seven deadly sisters, reminds me of sinister Gorgons à la Clash of the Titans. Though at times completely authoritative (especially with the seven backing her up), Leo manages to instill a sense of fragility behind her stony façade. She wants the best for her family, but the problems that each individual character faces often gets in the way of harmony. This idea – the tension outside the ropes, i.e. conflict not directly associated with sports-related issues – is a deviation away from the typical themes in the sports genre, and the quartet of fine performances carry out the film’s ideas very well.
We’re not primarily concerned with the whole “underdog succeeding against improbable odds” narrative (see: The Blind Side, Rocky Balboa, etc.), we’re more interested in the reconciliation with Ward, Eklund, Fleming, and family. The emotional payoff here is much more profound than any simple sports victory, though that’s not such a bad thing either. Still, David O. Russell takes some cinematic cues from some memorable sports formulas, like Rocky-esque training sequences (though there’s no climactic run up some stairs, or something like that) and trainer vs. student spars. Russell also employs a notable stylistic change from the personal drama to the actual boxing matches, with the glaring lights of the ring fading the colors of the picture with an unyielding focus on Mark Wahlberg.
Russell wisely avoids relying on all the old sports clichés that make so many sports films forgettable and ultimately recyclable (see: Facing the Giants, The Express, Gridiron Gang, Resurrecting the Champ, Glory Road, Coach Carter) Still, there’s a select few sports movies that I highly enjoy and are worth noting here: The Damned United (soccer), Million Dollar Baby (boxing), Friday Night Lights (football), Remember the Titans (football), and many others (the lack of a truly great basketball drama really disappoints me). Instead of focusing on building scenes to come together in one simple sports triumph at the conclusion of the film, David O. Russell’s portrayal of a difficult struggle is internal. Some of the training sequences that the film shows aren’t your ordinary exercises: we see Eklund undergoing drug withdrawal and compensating for it by building up his own inner strength to overcome his past. There’s more emotional satisfaction in his confident stride when released from his drug addiction than any straightforward sports victory.
As the dark, sinister mood begins to blur with the individual experiences of the two main characters, The Fighter’s chronicle becomes a journey through a magnificent void. While in prison for numerous illegal activities such as impersonating a police officer (part of a scheme to raise money), Eklund discovers for the first time that the HBO documentary isn’t about the comeback of Ward but on crack addiction in . Christian Bale achieves hypnotic power in portraying Eklund’s absolute lowest point in the film, with Eklund’s tortured soul looking into himself (literally) through the prison television and realizing how horrifying he appears while high on crack cocaine and what it’s doing to his family, to his son, and to himself. A shot of Eklund completely breaking down in a dark hallway quietly dislocates us, shifting Eklund’s own uncertain perspectives into the need for recovery, with the documentary acting as a catalyst for transformation. The prison scenes are alarmingly beautiful when taken in the context of the rest of the film. Ward genuinely cares for Eklund, knowing that his prison sojourn will allow him to grow up so he can work with him after rehabilitation, and both fighters remain apart for a long stretch of time while we feel as engulfed in isolation as the characters do.
In the later stages of The Fighter, David O. Russell leaves us in a state of charged exuberance. By now, our main protagonists have made amends with their troubled pasts and family and are now moving forward to a brighter future. The director’s choice of a lighter mood following the darkest moments of the film creates an unexpected union between the terrifying realism of drug addiction and family breakdown and a breezy, rewarding finale. The crisp transition from such a bleak first half to a lighter conclusion highlights the remarkable change in the emotional quest that the characters undergo. The visual schema of the closing shots also closely resemble the imagery that made the first Rocky such a wonder to experience, complete with the aestheticization of personal triumph and the fundamental symbol of redemption fully realized by a cheering audience on the screen.
David O. Russell is an exciting director. His 1999 film Three Kings is an innovative, satirical film that delivers thoughtful political critique on foreign policy during the Gulf War. 2004’s I ♥ Huckabees provides an interesting look on suburbia existentialism while maintaining some loony comedy and humorous musings. And it’s also noteworthy to mention that Russell was also involved in the developmental stages of the upcoming film adaptation for the videogame Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune as screenwriter and director. Disappointingly, he dropped out of the project on May 26, 2011, but not before Mark Wahlberg announced that he is set to play the titular character (rather than the fan favorite Nathan Fillion of the TV series Castle fame) with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci rumored to star as members of the artifact-dealing family. Uncharted, with its Indiana Jones-esque cinematic flavor, seems like a potential success story for videogame film adaptations, but the way things are headed, it looks like Russell’s departure is downplaying the film to some cheap family drama not unlike the Prince of Persia film. Still, it’s too early to speculate.
In retrospect, David O. Russell’s films are expertly conceived relationship dramas that study the nature of characters as tension gradually unravels. The conflict onscreen (and offscreen, as Russell has been prone to some epic arguments with cast/crew members) is disquieting, even heart-wrenching as characters instantly implode from their own troubled circumstances. In The Fighter, Russell opens up to a specific location – the working class neighborhood of – and the film delivers a mysterious cinematic energy for audiences to absorb. The movie is an unsettling vision of a dark, uniquely American struggle for deliverance. Some of its most haunting images linger in the mind as the lighter latter half of the film appear on the screen, reminding the audience of the infinite darkness and vast expanse of decay that the characters endured to achieve one of the most affecting stories of personal salvation ever realized in film.
Video Feature: December 2010 Releases
Alex and Rorie take a look at some of the December 2010 theatrical releases.
The Fighter Trailer
Mark Wahlberg stars in this David O. Russell-directed film about the life of Irish boxer Micky Ward.
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