Monday, January 3, 2011

The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)

Nowadays, many cinephiles apply the word “auteur” to directors who build their movies from the ground up, writing and producing (and sometimes more than that) as well as directing. But in the formative years of auteur theory, many of the movement’s most revered figures (e.g. Hitchcock) didn’t write their own material, but instead took other people’s screenplays and make them their own in production. One of things that makes The Fighter compelling from a critical standpoint is the sensibility that David O. Russell brings to the film. It’s the first of Russell’s films to date that he didn’t write or co-write, and although the relatively pedestrian screenplay shows through in the final result, Russell finds plenty of ways to make it feel like it’s of a piece with his other work.

The most obvious example of this is the sense of barely controlled chaos in the scenes involving the family of Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg). Ward is supposed to be the hero of The Fighter, but he barely registers in scenes opposite his crack-addicted half-brother Dicky (a live-wire turn by Christian Bale), his domineering mother (Melissa Leo), and his gaggle of trashy sisters. Taken by themselves, these scenes are pretty grating- especially the sisters, who seemingly move and think as a collective. But in terms of the movie as a whole, Russell makes them work, specifically as a counterpoint to Ward’s budding relationship with local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) who wants to help Micky get his boxing career back on track.

It’s this contrast between simplicity and chaos in Micky’s life that gives the movie a kind of screw-loose energy that distinguishes it from most underdog sports sagas. In Russell’s telling of the story, what holds Micky back as a boxer isn’t a lack of ability, or even poor management by Dicky, but the fact that he’s surrounded by noise and disorder with no means of escape. It’s only when Charlene makes her way into his life that he has an oasis, a place to find comfort and clarity amidst the hubbub. Just like the hero of I [Heart] Huckabees, it’s when he finds that clarity in his life that he’s able to move forward and accomplish his goals- in Micky’s case, to get a shot at the title.

Of course, Micky’s rise to the title bout is fairly standard as far as boxing movies go. But I did enjoy the detail with which Russell and his screenwriters explore the strategies behind boxing instead of simply showing us two fighters slugging away at each other until one of them got knocked out. However, despite the film’s obvious knowledge of boxing, it’s most interesting for the way Russell shows Micky learning to distinguish between the two contrasting sides of his life, and later on, to reconcile them. The Fighter could have been a straight-up paycheck job for its director, but because of Russell’s unwillingness to be lazy, it’s cut or two above what it might otherwise have been.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

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