Battle for the limelight
(The Fighter, David O Russell, USA, 2011, 115 mins)
Mark Wahlberg has been overshadowed not only within this true story based on the boxer who had his claim to fame in the eighties, but also by Christian Bale, who has been nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the Academy Awards taking place later this month. So why is it that this film has three nominations for Supporting Actors, for Best Director, Film Editing, Best Picture and Original Screenplay, but the main lead hasn’t been considered?
Bale dominates the first half of the film as Micky Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) brother Dicky Eklund, who had his days of publicity after supposedly knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard. The urban town of Lowell, Massachusetts, praises Dicky in the first scenes as he walks with his brother down roads of neighbourhood fans, eagerly followed by a camera crew from HBO who Dicky believes to be documenting his come back to boxing, but who are in fact recording a disturbing documentary on the effects of crack cocaine. The documentary itself could be considered to be a meta-narrative for the audience to focus on, and another notable battle the brothers must get through. The detrimental effects of cocaine are powerfully suggested by Bale’s almost skeletal frame, which is a déjà vu of his performance and weight loss in The Machinist (2006) indicating his dedication to the role. The men’s bodies could not be more dissimilar, and Micky is quiet and hesitant, unlike his brother; their distinctive personalities are also reflected through their parents Alice (Melissa Leo) and George (Jack McGee).
It is obvious from the beginning as Alice smothers Dicky that there is favouritism in this family. David O Russell has triumphantly avoided making this a cliché about boxing, and instead has prioritised the relationships of the family and the problems they must face. There may be some audiences who are reluctant to view this film with the presumption it would be much like Rocky, however I could not comment, I have never seen those films nor have a broad knowledge on boxing. This did not make the experience any less enjoyable. Brother Dicky is goofy, but supportive when he chooses to be Micky’s trainer, but patience takes its toll eventually and Micky becomes frustrated with his manipulative mother also as his manager. Melissa Leo’s performance is spectacular, she shows that she has control over Micky, and chooses to be oblivious to Dicky’s addiction, yet her husband George is understanding towards Micky and provides comedy in moments of tension.
Alice’s attitude towards Micky’s girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) is shocking, and the pair enthusiastically clash as Charlene attempts to help Micky become reliant on her as opposed to his destructive family. The tension can really be felt between Leo and Adams, as in one hair raising scene fierce Charlene sarcastically states “Hi, I’m Charlene, we just met, we’re together” much to Alice’s disapproval. This is quite a varying performance from Adams compared to her lead role in the romantic comedy Leap Year (2010) and her charming character of Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum 2 (2009). The fight between Charlene and Micky’s sisters just a few scenes later is entertaining, as Adams once again proves she can hold her ground, unlike the dishevelled sisters who repeat insults such as “skank” before one of them has a nose broken by Adams, suggesting everyone in the film has a chance to be The Fighter.
Wahlberg’s emotions as a walked over sibling are not portrayed particularly well, however once he is inside the boxing ring his body language is more readable. He cowers in the majority of his fights, protecting his face and reluctant to fight back, almost appearing to be a small boy caught up in a playground misunderstanding. As the film progresses Micky finds his voice, shouting “I’m the one who’s fighting, not you, not you and not you”, this step of independence makes the audience weary of his division between loyalty to family and newer opportunities and successes with Charlene. Dicky also comes to realise the importance of family as the documentary airs on the TV and he is suddenly aware of the impact it could have on his son. As Dicky detoxes in prison after a fight with the police, Michael Brook produces a soundtrack that is very obscure, almost sinister, as Bale twitches and curls up in a ball to represent what it is like to feel the drugs wearing off.
The documentary footage is also intertwined with old home footage where a very tall Dicky looks down upon his younger brother, asserting the idea once again that Micky may never be good enough. During the boxing tournaments, the picture is sharp and the camera movements quick and chaotic, cutting to Charlene’s reactions as she looks on at the very convincing choreography. The film isn’t primarily about Wahlberg getting his moment, because he does when he claims the last scene, as he looks to the audience and shrugs in a “things will never change” way. The appearance of the real brothers the film is based upon reemphasises the significance of family, and there is no doubt The Fighter will be compared to the Rocky films, nevertheless audiences are more likely to leave with the new message David O Russell is trying to punch through with.