|Image from IMDB.com|
Boxing movies is nothing new to the cinematic landscape. It’s also not new to awards bait. From Rocky to Million Dollar Baby and now The Fighter. What is it about this genre that is so appealing to people? For the most part these movies rely on a very similar plot structure – protagonist is generally from a poor neighborhood with a somewhat unsavory home life who finds boxing as a way to overcome their less than favorable upbringings. They literally have to fight their ways out of their situations to claim a valuable spot in society. At its soul its essentially retellings of the American Dream story. The Fighter fits nicely into this mold and what’s most interesting is that these stories, no matter how repetitive they seem to be, continue to capture the fascination and interest of American audiences. Further, with each iteration, there seems to be added messages in each new film that emerges.
The movie is about half-brothers Dick Ecklund (Christian Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Whalberg), two boxers, Dicky the has-been and Micky the rising star. They are 2 working class guys from a large Irish family in the Boston suburb of Lowell, Mass. That’s what it’s about in the simplest sense, but what gives this movie a little more is all the extras director David O. Russell put into it. So much more than just a simple plot driven story about 2 poor kids overcoming their upbringing, The Fighter is about a family struggling to stay together in the face of many challenges.
The movie opens on Dicky dragging his brother through the streets of Lowell while he preens and brags about the HBO film that he says is being made about him and his comeback. He’s training Micky to be a great fighter, but as far as Dicky is concerned, however great of a fighter Micky becomes it will all be because of him. Micky looks up to his older brother and does not have the heart to leave him for another trainer and on some level truly believes that his brother will make him a great fighter. Micky passively goes through life allowing his brother and his mother (Melissa Leo) to dictate his every move. Mother Alice, always surrounded by her cadre of her seven spinster (and ugly as hell) daughters, is not only the matriarch of this family, but uncontested top dog. She is her sons’ manager and bookie and has a death-tight grip on her youngest son and he doesn’t have the strength to combat her. It’s not until Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a rough talking a no bullshit taking bartender, that he has someone who actually is interested in helping him stand up for his own needs.
There are a few elements of this film that really stood out to me. First of all, the roles the women have in this story are profound. The two leading women in this film were both nominated for Oscars, and rightly so. Melissa Leo as the fiercely aggressive mother who will stop at nothing to get her sons where she wants them to be is an interesting portraits of a mother’s love. Her character forces us to ask how far is too far? And at what point do the lines blur between wanting the best for your child and wanting the best for yourself? Her sons were her meal ticket out of the poor existence she has been living for what seems like her entire life. Her rule over her sons is challenged when Charlene comes into the picture. She’s equally as strong as Alice, and loves Micky very much but in very different ways. She sees Micky for what he is – and that’s not just a tool of his mother’s control. She wants him to be great to fulfill his potential, not so he can be a meal ticket out of Lowell for his family.
As mentioned at the top of this review, The Fighter is the ultimate in the reaffirmation of the American Dream. The Ward family is poor, working class, at the bottom of the social barrel living in a poor, but proud, town. I’m always fascinated with movies that take place in Boston because rarely is the geographical setting merely by happenstance. What I mean by this is whether the movie takes place in Southie, Cambridge, Charlestown or Lowell, the city in which the characters inhabit is almost always another character in the film, or at the very least, a central part of the plot. While it’s a reality that Ward family is from Lowell, it acts as an interesting narrative point as well. Lowell, Mass is famous for being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It was a mill town that made a lot of people very rich. The only people who did not get rich were the actual residents of Lowell, the ones doing the hard labor. And in an almost ironic twist of history, it’s become the town that got left behind. Dicky, in many ways, is the anthropomorphic embodiment of his hometown. He started his career with so much promise, and had one great success, but eventually hit rock bottom and couldn’t pull himself out of it.
The resolution for the character could only come with redemption. For Dicky, it is only once he saw he landed in jail and was forced to get sober did he realize just the depths of his addiction and how it had hurt so many people he loved. Micky needed to break free from his mother’s grip and his brother’s delusions of grandeur to be able to reach his true potential. In the surest sense, this is the promise of the American Dream, the ability to break free from your proscribed place in society to reach unimagined heights. It’s a message that we as a society have been telling ourselves and striving to attain for centuries. It seems that in 2011it is still as strong as ever as Hollywood, our “dream factory,” continues to perpetuate.