There is some kind of post-modern irony that movies based on true stories can seem less believable than fiction. In the case of The Fighter (dir David O’Russell, 2010), this also makes it more quirky. There are off beat moments and the narrative is less formulaic, less Hollywood than expected. Music is a very big part of the film – setting atmosphere and pace very well (diegetic and non-diegetic are combined and confused). But it’s the superb acting that carries it. Apart from some of the fight scenes, which just did not ring true for me, overall I found this to be an engaging and enjoyable film.
It is impossible to watch this genre without thinking of Raging Bull or On the Waterfront or Rocky but there is some colour to the story. It is rooted firmly in Lowell, set in a moment in that town’s history, and this allows for some tremendous authenticity. The dialogue is chaotic and even incomprehensible at times. Clichés abound (redemption, atonement, broken dreams, blue collar gritty realism etc) but some of the characters are multi-dimensional.
It was shot in just 33 days and stars some of the real life characters from Eklund and Ward’s life (Mickey O’Keefe, the cop who was Ward’s trainer; Eklund’s nephew etc). They used the actual Lowell West End gym where the boxers trained and Christian Bale spent a lot of time with Dicky to understand how his mind worked. The interviews at the beginning and end were improvised by Wahlberg and Bale; they set the tone and tie off the end of the movie nicely.
Wahlberg is adequate. He plays low-key well – we get a sense of his massive frustration even from his excellent poker face. The chemistry between him and Amy Adams is palpable and she is well-cast as an ordinary looking woman, not out of place alongside the ‘white trash’ Eklund sisters. He just seems a bit slow – as a boxer and as a human. Rather vague. I would have loved to see Casey Affleck in that role. Bale steals the show as always, reminding me very much of John Lurie (in Down by Law and on stage with the Lounge Lizards).
There is some clever cinematography. It is not always clear what is being seen from the film crew making the documentary and what is real; dramatic camera angles pull us in to the drama (and rapidly out in one scene early when the camera backs away from the street junction where documentary is being filmed). O’Russell uses a hand-held, free-moving approach and cuts in scenes as they would have been filmed for TV at the time, as well as some unusual multi-camera set-ups which convey the sense of chaos. There is also lots of natural lighting to add to sense of this being ‘almost documentary’.
I very much enjoyed watching Melissa Leo as Alice Ward as I always loved her in Homicide, Life on the Streets as Kay Howard. Alice could have been played very differently and would have been less convincing. Having some strong female characters in a boxing movie was a treat. Shame that Charlene still had to be seen in various states of undress and subject to the male gaze.
In the final analysis, this film does not grip us emotionally because it is hard to care too much about Micky but it is interesting to watch and has some good moments of filmmaking.