Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: The Fighter (2010)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Movie Review: The Fighter (2010)

by Tony Dayoub

It doesn't even take as long as you'd think. In fact, it begins during the opening credits for The Fighter. Christian Bale, already being lauded for his "scene-stealing" turn as the crack-addicted former boxer Dicky Eklund, starts showboating. And then, as he walks through his neighborhood with the film's ostensible star—Mark Wahlberg playing Eklund's brother Micky Ward—with a camera crew and some locals (surely non-actors given their earthy, blank-faced realism) gathered around them, someone stops to take a picture of Micky and one of the groupies, and Bale photo-bombs the shot with his hyperactive mugging. It's a moment indicative of the movie's flaws. Director David O. Russell (Three Kings), often portrayed as a control freak of the worst kind, gives up control to the manically cocky Bale, and The Fighter buckles to its knees.

Though Russell is enamored with Bale's turn as Dicky, The Fighter is supposed to be about Micky, an aging welterweight living in the fading shadow of Dicky, touted as "The Pride of Lowell" because he managed to go an entire match against Sugar Ray Leonard before losing by unanimous decision. Dicky trains Micky when he isn't disappearing to indulge in his addiction, while their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) plays manager to Micky almost as an afterthought; Micky is bringing home just enough prize money for his extended family (including a pack of shrewish sisters) to scrape by while Alice tries to engineer Dicky's comeback. Micky keeps turning down obvious opportunities to rise above the smothering environs of Lowell, Massachusetts because none of the men who offer to bankroll him want to deal with the strung-out Dicky or the demanding Alice. It's only when he falls for scrappy waitress Charlene (Amy Adams) that Micky begins to see how much his mother and brother are actually holding him back.

There's an intriguing romance between Wahlberg and Adams at the heart of The Fighter, quietly and contemplatively trying to wiggle its way out. But Bale's outsized performance as Dicky is louder and bigger, eclipsing rather than enhancing the story in much the same way Dicky blocks Micky from everybody's view. I guess that's sort of the point, isn't it? Except Bale's hollow-eyed, twitchy, junkie goes from merely distracting to positively transgressive the way Russell frames him. Where our hero Micky is often framed in medium shots, the squirrely Dicky gets the benefit of close-ups, pushing all other characters and actors out of view. Don't blame Bale, whose fury can be electrifying when harnessed by a strong director. It's a lapse in judgement by the usually capable Russell who here can't seem to maintain the difficult balancing act without tipping over onto Dicky's side.

It forces Wahlberg and Adams' nuanced portrayals to look small scale, even though this otherwise typical fight movie is indeed meant to be a minor genre piece. That is to say, Bale is acting in a totally different film than his costars are, a grander, redemptive epic also called The Fighter but centered around him, a faded boxer trying to overcome the addiction he's given his life over to. The Dicky subplot is overcooked within the context of what amounts to a standard fight film by way of a very specific working-class New England setting, akin to what Winter's Bone did by setting its neo-noir in hillbilly country.

I don't mean to come down too hard on The Fighter. I got caught up fairly often in Micky Ward's plight, one in which he must choose between his constraining family and his own relatively quiet aspirations. I admire how forthcoming the film is about Charlene half-seeing Micky as her ticket out of Lowell. If only the sound of Bale's Dicky hijacking the film didn't keep drowning everything else out.


Candice Frederick said...

i actually thought the romance was the throwaway aspect of the movie. I though Bale was brilliant, and Wahlberg didn't put out a career-best i my opinion, but managed to say a lot in less words (as opposed to the motormouth Dicky).

debra said...

I can't stand Christian Bale, never have, never will. He just creeps me the fuck out and am not surprised to hear about him inthe film. What a bummer. Still I would like to see Adams. Wait til video.

Tony Dayoub said...

Candice, I wish I could agree with you, but I thought Bale's was a very self-serving performance. As I said above, I would never blame an actor for that; it's in their nature. But Russell should realy have used better judgement in letting him hijack the film away from what I thought were two, low-key, nuanced performances from Adams and Wahlberg. Not every good performance needs to be dialed up to 11 in my opinion. Thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts.

Debra, I really don't have a problem with Bale, usually. Or the director. I just think it was a miscalculation. Still, the movie is worth seeing, if not necessarily urgently.

Unknown said...

While I understand your reaction Tony, I definitely disagree. A rebuttal tomorrow, it's late now.

Bryce Wilson said...

I liked the film a fair sight more then you did, though often it made me EXTREMELY uncomfortable.

I liked Bale's performance. He's been playing Batman in every film he's been in for far too long, and I like the live wire energy he brought to this.

More importantly, he sells the moments he needs to. The part were he hits bottom after his HBO special really hit. That's a scene that's been scene a bajillion times before, but Bale made it seem real.

Unknown said...

Alright, first off I think this was an excellent movie, but not a perfect movie. But I think it succeeds on a level that many critics are not giving it credit for.

I personally do not believe that Christian Bale was showboating with the character, but I will give you that one for argument's sake. After the line is a fine one when it comes to impersonating a living human being (and video of the real Dickie Ecklund suggests he's spot on) but no matter, it's a subjective issue to harp on. So we'll say he's over doing it.

I still think it works. For a number of reasons.

1. I don't think the movie is about Mickey Ward. I think that's why Wahlberg plays him perfectly. He's a vessel through which we experience the insecurities of those around him. He is not a strong character, a total pushover, and as such if he loses it's everyone's loss and if he wins it's everyone's win. In my mind Dickie is the main character of the movie, even if it's not his fists in the fight.

2. If we thought that Mickey's one sympathetic counterpart was Charlene, we were lead to believe that by her backseat to Dickie and Mickey's mother's overt control. We don't suspect she's also using him in a way BECAUSE Dickie is so over the top.

3. All of the characters are chasing after what Dickie almost had a shot at. He is larger than life in the town, not only because of his brush with success but because of his failures. The Pride of Lowell, Dickey embodies the journey of the town itself, once a thriving, growing industrial hot spot succumbed to economic depression, forced to carry on a shadow of itself.

Mickey never clearly etches a personality of his own in The Fighter, except through his loyalties. To his family, his girlfriend and his town. Thus, he takes a backseat to all of them, and in my opinion the movie is better for it.

Tony Dayoub said...

Well, Tony, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. I judge movies pretty lightly. My only criteria is, Does the film succeed at what it was aiming for? That's why I can love a B-movie like SPLICE, or an A-list one like TRUE GRIT.

Something like Sofia Coppola's SOMEWHERE fails for me because it fails to hit that target. It tries to say something deep about a privileged few without either making the protagonists entirely relatable or presenting anything above the superficial.

THE FIGHTER fails because it takes the focus away from Mickey Ward. And while it's easy to attribute this to an explanation that the film is really about Dicky Eklund, the fact is it isn't.

Micky is in every scene, and the story is about his journey from one emotional place where he is overshadowed by his brother to one where he rises above that. Dicky is merely a story device. If the director finds more to be enamored with in Dicky, and doesn't restructure the drama appropriately to compensate the movie is neither fish nor fowl.

I'm sure I would have liked a movie about Dicky. As it is, THE FIGHTER isn't enough of that either.

Anonymous said...

Is the whole purpose not for Bale's character to overtake the film? that's half the conflict, so it makes sense to give him a bit of free reign, to let him live out and act the same way outside of the scenes as he is supposed to in the scene...

Tony Dayoub said...

I see what you're saying. But this seems like more of a way to justify Russell's inability to keep a Bale's selfish screen presence in line. It does not seem like something planned, or even accepted tacitly during once THE FIGHTER was in production.