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The Fighter

July 27, 2011

Perhaps unlike any other film metaphor, the boxer is the easiest for the viewer to identify with. This may be because we perceive our lives to be like boxing matches – brutal, hard fought, exhausting – and much like the heroes in many of these films, we relate to their underdog status. Sometimes the director is specifically driving home that metaphor, and sometimes it’s just a byproduct of the story. Regardless, it’s been done well many times: Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby, The Hurricane... and that’s just off the top of my head. The Fighter deserves to be mentioned in this esteemed group of films.

What makes The Fighter different than these other films is the struggle that takes place outside the ring. Normally, the battle inside the ring is a metaphor for issues such as social or political injustice, such as in The Boxer, Cinderella Man, and The Hurricane, or sometimes the issue is just “bad karma,” like we find in Rocky or Million Dollar Baby. In The Fighter, though, the issue is family, or more appropriately, sins of the family. What we get is something akin to the biblical saying, “the sins of the father are visited upon the son.” The two main characters, brothers Mickey and Dickey (yeah, I know) have lived hard lives and they have responded to their circumstances in two very different ways. As the movie unfolds, and we’re introduced to the rest of the family, we see why these circumstances have come about. We also see a bit of the future, as both of these characters have their own children. It’s a sad situation that is not easily overcome because of the pull of family. These characters are not evil, but they’re not good either. It’s a cycle that has played out numerous times in real life, sometimes a little too close to home.

David O. Russell, the director of The Fighter, is quite the chameleon. It’s hard to pin him to a specific style or genre, as he incorporates a number of different techniques and points of view that serve the particular story he’s telling. In this instance, much of the movie has a pseudo-documentary feel to it – which is obvious, given that part of the plot revolves around a documentary that’s being filmed throughout the movie – but also because Russell places his camera in positions that make you feel as if you’re peeking in on the character’s lives. There’s a natural, lived – in, feel to the movie that gives it a certain charm. The characters are never caricatures. In many films, this would have been unavoidable, given the absurd personalities in the movie. Alice Ward, as played by Melissa Leo, is exhibit A in this instance. With her dyed blond hair, gruff talk, chain smoking, and tight, tacky clothes, she is the epitome of “over-the-top.” Yet Leo infuses her with such humanity and truth that we never get that caricature. She’s a real person – in the film and in real life (Did I mention this is based on a true story? All these characters actually exist!). The whole cast deserves credit for outstanding performances, with special recognition also going to Christian Bale as a crack addict and Amy Adams playing against type as a street-wise, rough around the edges bartender.

Finally, Russell deserves bonus points for making a movie set in Boston that is not obnoxiously about Boston (Please take notes Ben Affleck). There are no annoying Boston accents on full display and there are actually a number of characters that are of something other than an Irish ethnicity. The Fighter is at once a film completely about Boston, yet could be any blue collar town in the United States. Yes, there’s plenty of personality and flavor, but it’s never the emphasis. Instead, the viewer is so drawn in to the human characters that the surroundings stay surroundings instead of becoming their own character. Sometimes that can work, but for this film, it was the perfect choice to downplay the Boston setting.

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