It’s easy to take a film like David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” for granted around award season. It’s minus the panache of the year’s other heavy hitters, and fills a comfortable ‘sports drama’ niche. O. Russell’s film may very well be among the ten best picture nominations announced next month, but it doesn’t have a shot at the title—which is a shame, because it earns greatness in its own right.
“The Fighter” isn’t the best film of the year, but it features some of the best characters and performances of the year, wrapped in a familiar but accessible underdog story with plenty of fresh hooks. Much attention has been paid to Christian Bale as boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s crack-addicted brother, and rightly so. Even among so talented an ensemble, Bale shines in his transformative turn, once again whittling himself down to little more than a human wireframe.
Bale probably receives too much credit for his wild weight swings, which have the tendency to upstage merely passable performances, but his talent as showcased in “The Fighter” is incontrovertible. This is best Bale has ever been, juggling pathos with a sense of humor I presumed lost after “American Psycho.” If “The Fighter” takes home one award, it’ll have Christian Bale’s name on it.
Bale is so vibrant in his role that it’s easy to forget to mention the strength of the rest of the cast; Mark Wahlberg contributes his best performance in years under O. Russell, whom he’s collaborated with before on “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees.” As an artist, Wahlberg may be guilty of poor taste more than anything else, as he has consistently proven more than capable a performer in the right hands. The same boyish naivety that made him a perfect fit for P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” shines through in “The Fighter,” which along with his physical formidability make him both believable and easy to get behind.
If I have a gripe about the casting, Amy Adams might actually be a bit too attractive as Ward’s love interest—a small town bartender and college dropout—but her performance sells it. Also fine are Ward’s destructive family, including Melissa Leo as the totalitarian matriarch, who’s followed in tow by a gaggle of her fiercely protective daughters, and Jack McGee as the working-class dad who seems consistently out of his element among all the aggressive estrogen.
“The Fighter” is a terrifically acted film, but its real strength comes from the way its characters drive the story. Much of the drama comes from Ward’s poisonous relationship with his mother and brother (his manager and trainer, respectively), and his having to break free of their manipulation and neglect is a decidedly unorthodox angle for a sports flick. Those relationships motivate the narrative, and the result is a drama that runs like clockwork. “The Fighter” is engrossing, unpretentious, and an immaculate crowd-pleaser.
O. Russell and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In”) deserve recognition as well for giving the film its distinctive visual flair. Of particular interest is the style and method by which the pair chose to shoot their fight sequences, which achieve some of the best faux-broadcast mimicry I’ve ever seen. The effect is initially so convincing that I assumed actual footage had been integrated from Ward’s fights—until Wahlberg stepped into the ring. From there, the camerawork is kept tight and effect is satisfying and visceral.
Buzz films like “Black Swan” and “127 Hours” will likely dominate much of the awards dialogue in the coming months, but “The Fighter” deserves a fair shake as well. Unlike last year’s condescending “Blindside,” David O. Russell’s sports drama isn’t exploitative, nor is it only receiving praise in the context of its Oscar-caliber performances. “The Fighter” is absolutely worth seeing, and not just for Christian Bale. It could be a contender.