This movie season I feel like an honorary citizen of Boston. First came The Town, a hard-boiled, authentic look at a gang of bank robbers in Charlestown. And now there’s The Fighter, an equally hard-boiled and equally authentic exploration of a pair of boxing brothers in Lowell. These are two of the best films I’ve seen this year and their setting is a key reason why.
The Fighter tells the true tale of welterweight Micky Ward, an introspective bruiser whose own family proved as formidable an obstacle to his success as anybody he faced in the ring.
But unlike a long line of small town dreamers who strive to succeed so they can escape their situation, Ward wants to win as much for Lowell as himself. The central conflict of the film is whether he can be a champion without abandoning the people and the place he loves.
Boston’s own Mark Wahlberg, after a ten year struggle, brought The Fighter to the big screen courtesy of director David O. Russell, and with a dream of a supporting cast. Several directors and co-stars have been attached along the way, but it feels like fate that he wound up with the team he did.
Russell is an unlikely match for this material. The hothead director made his name with the subversive comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster and then moved on to political satire (Three Kings) and existential screwball (I Heart Huckabees). He is perhaps best known for his tense screaming match with Lily Tomlin on the set of Huckabees. And he’s one of the last people you’d expect to direct an underdog sports story.
But The Fighter is the land of misfit artists. Amy Adams as a tough bar girl? Melissa Leo as a mother of nine in a bleached bouffant? Christian Bale as a crack addicted former star boxer? OK, maybe that one we could have seen coming.
Indeed, at times Bale’s depiction of Ward’s brother, Dicky Eklund, threatens to take over the whole movie. Bale delivers a transformative performance for the ages, completely losing himself in the role both physically and emotionally. He looks like he not only dropped 50 pounds but somehow grew five inches.
In the film’s early scenes, he plays crack addiction with haunting realism, not relying on any easy tics but displaying an aching emptiness in his eyes. As he cleans up in prison, you see shades of the boxer who once earned the nickname The Pride of Lowell, and it becomes more clear why Dicky is somebody Micky would want in his corner.
Wahlberg, the film’s putative star, is in the tricky position of anchoring a film playing a man who is more comfortable on the sidelines than in the spotlight. Wahlberg shows an admirable lack of ego in letting the film’s stellar cast spin wildly around him. His Micky Ward is the quiet eye of a hurricane of family and friends who both use and support him, sometimes simultaneously.
Wahlberg doesn’t have great range as an actor but he is very good at exposing the underbelly of wounded sensitivity at the heart of tough-guy characters like Ward or Boogie Nights‘ Dirk Diggler. He loves his family even as they destroy him, and he wears that pain like a cloak… this pumped-up man walks around looking half his size.
Micky’s chief antagonist is his manager mother, Alice, played by Melissa Leo. She is more interested in engineering Dicky’s comeback than nurturing Micky’s more realistic stab at pugilistic success and she’s not above using equal parts fear and guilt to keep Micky in his place. It’s a tribute to both Leo and the film’s writers and director that Alice doesn’t become a Mommie Dearest stereotype, to the point that you’re rooting for a reconciliation by the end of the movie.
On the other end of the spectrum is Micky’s brassy bartender girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), who sees the destructive path his family has him on and steers him in the opposite direction. Charlene backs down from nobody and Adams really sells the tough chick routine. She’s a long way from Enchanted and Doubt and she seems to revel in it. Imagine going from playing a nun to a hard-drinking bar girl with a tramp stamp who’s dismissed as a “skank” in every other scene of the movie.
Adams has said that when she saw Charlene’s revealing wardrobe she immediately planned to hit the gym, but Russell wouldn’t let her. God bless him for that. She has never looked sexier.
The Fighter succeeds in part because it’s such a refreshingly odd blend of genres. I would classify this as a “feel-good” movie in the way that all underdog sports stories earn that distinction. But I can’t think of many feel-good movies that spend this much time in crack houses and prison, or that feature this much emotional warfare between family and friends. The blows thrown outside the ring sting more than the ones thrown inside it.
But that psychological brutality grounds the film in a gritty reality and lets it earn the inevitable moments of triumph. And most impressive, while The Fighter is both tough and uplifting, it is also extremely entertaining throughout, peppered with moments of unexpected humor.
The film manages one of the most difficult cinematic feats — making you feel like you’ve just watched an art film and a popcorn movie at the same time.