For as long as television and cinema have co-existed, academics and film-buffs have seen the former as the locus of cheap entertainment, while always clinging to the latter’s superior status as “the seventh art”. It is therefore humbling for a cinephile to witness a complete reversal where TV now offers complex psychology and narrative structure while film increasingly revels in flat characters and saccharine sentiment. The newest nail in the coffin of cinema’s monopoly on sophistication is David O. Russell’s recent Oscar darling, The Fighter, a film loved and lauded by spectators and critics alike.1
The Fighter is a difficult film to sum up neatly. Part boxing picture, part social portrait, part family drama, part tale of addiction, the film wobbles and weaves like a punch-drunk scrapper on roller skates. It tells the story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a Welterweight with promise whose career is hindered by his big brother/coach Dicky (Christian Bale) and his mom/manager Alice (Melissa Leo) who exploit him for every dollar they can. Dicky is a washed-up boxer who spends most of his time living vicariously through Micky’s young career and smoking crack. Mama Alice only has eyes for her eldest son and cares little for Micky, so long as he brings home his meager winnings. Things change when he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a barmaid who pushes Micky to break free from his corrupt family and go pro under new management. Micky is torn. He wants to listen to Charlene, but he also wants to stay loyal to his family. To speed things up: Dicky goes to prison, Micky trains and gets his mojo back, Dicky gets out, Charlene doesn’t want him there, but Micky does, confrontation, resolution, Micky n’ Dicky train together, and Micky gets a shot at the title… If all this sounds belaboured and confused, that’s because it is. The film spreads itself very thin, more like a WWF Battle Royale where ten different plot lines try to destroy one another for supremacy than anything out of boxing. That said, the convoluted narrative is the least offensive of The Fighter’s flaws.
Right from the film’s credit sequence — a stroll through Main Street, Lowell, Mass., USA — the film presents itself to the viewer as a fresco of New England’s working class in the ‘90s. As the two brothers strut their stuff down the avenue, we see people scratching lottery tickets in convenience stores, while others buy drugs or hustle for sex, all to an incongruously upbeat funk soundtrack. This poor-folk parade is all very absurd, but its purpose is clear: this isn’t just a film about boxing, it’s a portrait of an entire social stratum.
But this isn’t just any kind of portrait, either. Instead of trying to create a bridge of empathy or identification between the viewer and this world, throughout The Fighter, working class Lowellites are represented almost entirely via ridiculous taste. Consequently, there is a cold, surgical precision to getting the “poverty” to shine through every shot of a face or piece of clothing. All the trash is where it should be: streaked and teased hair, Whitesnake on the stereo, a woman with a three-day-old black eye. Lovers of detail will notice the triangular Guess Jeans label on mom’s acid-washed denim skirt, or the Camaro Z28 in the driveway. It quickly becomes clear that, instead of portraiture, the film is offering us caricature.
This is most visible in the film’s characters. Amy Adams plays a tramp-stamped barmaid who swears like a sailor and bitches Micky out for taking her to a foreign film where she had to “read the fuckin’ thing”. Bale hams his way through the film as Dicky with as much subtlety as a birthday clown, athletic in his portrayal of a bug-eyed crack addict who blinks three times in 115 minutes. Melissa Leo looks more like Peggy Bundy channeling Tammy Faye Baker, wearing about as much eye make-up as a NFL quarterback. If The Fighter’s hypothesis is that you are your taste, then the poor must taste like a can of Bud. Strangely, the most underrated actor in the film is Wahlberg. Being a real-life New Englander from a poor family with a criminal record, he exudes a calm confidence, never having to stoop to a “clam chowdah” accent to appear believable.
Watching all this, it is clear that David O. Russell’s vision has less in common with Raging Bull than it does with the “prolesploitation” of Jersey Shore. With its laughable accents, gum-smacking, hard-drinking and bull-headed bravado, much of The Fighter’s dialogue and acting feels like it could be taking place between The Situation and Snooki. But, although caricaturing the poor is no crime in itself, it feels particularly harmful here because this is a boxing film. The boxing genre is as much about class as it is about two men punching it out in a ring.
In cinema, there is no such thing as a gentleman boxer. The boxer-hero is always someone who is born in the streets with nothing but hard fists and ambition, taking every blow society has ever dealt him/her and giving it back threefold. From classics like The Set-Up or Brando’s character in On the Waterfront, to more recent examples like Million Dollar Baby and the overlooked Rocky Balboa, a man or woman from the lowest rung of society finds dignity in the ring, regardless of whether they win or lose. In fact, I would go so far as to say that dignity is the value that perhaps most defines the boxing genre. However, one finds little of it in The Fighter. Here, Micky Ward wins the title because that’s how the “true story” ends, not out of any internal logic to the film. He wins in spite of the idiocy of the petty, uneducated people around him.
This sort of snideness in depicting the working class appears to be more and more rampant. It is unclear what its origins are. Perhaps the fall of the Berlin Wall and supposed “end of the class system”? Or, maybe it’s growing up with daily doses of Jerry Springer and COPS? Regardless, when class representation is devoid of politics, it can only fall into two-dimensional caricature. And, in a time where the American poor are poorer by the minute and the class divide has never been more pronounced, there is something quite nauseating in making a haughty spectacle of their poverty.
It remains to be seen if this insulting depiction will continue in The Fighter 2 (yes, I’m afraid so…). But, when it does, I’m quite sure that I’ll be at home with my five seasons of The Wire. I suggest you do the same.
1At the time of writing, it was rated 8.1/10 rating on IMDB. In comparison, Godard’s “Breathless” got 8.0.