The film is based somewhat on the real life travails of the Ward-Eklund clan of Lowell, Massachusetts, and the battles they had to go through supporting youngest brother Mickey on the way back into boxing after flirting with retirement. It’s a story made for dramatizing. Dicky’s once promising career was cut short by his descent into crack cocaine addiction, a fact which is both completely in the open (in the open to the whole country after he is featured in an HBO documentary) and which no one in his family is willing to talk about.
While nominally about the obstacles Micky has to overcome to make a real try as a boxer, it’s really about his family, mainly because his family is his largest obstacle. Dicky’s drug addiction makes him useless as a trainer, despite the fact that he does actually know quite a lot about boxing, and mother Alice’s Dicky-addiction makes her useless as a supporter for Micky. The only thing they manage to do well is exploit Micky, putting him the ring against opponents he can’t possibly beat for a meager paycheck.
David O. Russell’s film is more of a character study than a sports film with much of the boxing taking second place to what it takes to get into the ring. This turns out to be exactly the right track to take, adding depth and interest to the family’s natural melodrama through the strength of its performances, especially Bale.
While “The Fighter” may be Micky’s story, as a film it is resolutely stolen from him by Bale in a career-best performance. With his slicked up hair and emaciated faux-toothless grin, Bale is the face of the method actor as he falls into Dicky’s shoes, but it completely works rather than getting in the way. Bale BECOMES Dicky in a way that is horrifying and mesmerizing, from his drug-fuelled exuberance to his punch-drunk lack of circumspection.
Nearly as good is Leo as the family’s soul-killing Dragon Lady matriarch. She’s so tied into Dicky’s past success, she’s unable to give Micky (or likely any of her other grown children) what he needs to succeed. Which wouldn’t be so bad except that she’s also such a control freak, she can’t give up an ounce of control to anyone in her family to live their life. Every glance is filled with poison and calculation. So you can only imagine her reaction when Mickey brings home a strong-willed girlfriend (Amy Adams) who instantly sees through Alice’s crap and realizes that Micky’s only hope of success is to get as far away from her as he can.
There is also some boxing.
Russell is at the surest he has ever been as a director with “The Fighter.” As easily as it could fall into melodrama, his cinema verite leanings work to the film’s advantage, creating a feeling of reality even when the film starts to show off some of its Hollywood leanings with dramatic confrontations and reconciliations. But it never feels false, mixing humor and even the odd slapstick (Dicky has a habit of jumping out of the window of his local crack house whenever his mother comes looking for him) with drama and melodrama and even a touch of victory.
The verite style extends to the ring, where Russell switches to video to emulate the look of broadcast boxing matches, a look which completely fits within the style of the film rather than standing out. It’s also the only time Wahlberg himself truly takes center stage, which also fits within the style of the film but still can’t help but feel a little unsatisfactory.
By nature, Micky is a doormat for his family and for other fighters, to such an extent he has been tagged as a ‘stepping stone’ by other boxers. He lets everyone, his mother, Dicky, Charlene, tell him what he should be doing and hardly ever speaks up for himself. Wahlberg is suitably meek and uncertain but it also means he gets walked over by the other actors as much as by the other characters. Even his final blow-up at all parties, when he is forced to choose between Charlene and Dicky, is understated and mild.
It’s a small price to pay for a boxing film that’s about more than just boxing; “The Fighter” deftly manages to be equal parts character drama and sports film without giving short shrift to either side. Containing a couple of the best performances of the year, it is in turn harrowing and heartwarming and worth every minute of your time.