Some films approach greatness by bucking convention. They take a standard narrative apart and rebuild it with mischievous haphazardness, or heap in abstract, abrasive imagery like rubble out of a steam shovel basket. They upend expectations about identity, motivation and reliability of the characters, or simply edit everything together into a hyper-intense hash. Then there are those films with little to no aspirations of cinematic revolution. They are simply built to be sturdy storytelling machines, perhaps including some imaginative staging of individual scenes, but primarily trying to engage the audience in much the same ways that movies have for generations upon generations. Director David O. Russell used to lean towards the former in his work: trashing taboos in Spanking the Monkey, plumbing his own darkly ingenious comic sensibility in Flirting With Disaster, and making a sublimely cynical war film like no other with Three Kings. This professional progression reached a commercial and artistic dead end with 2004’s star-studded hot mess I ♥ Huckabees. There hasn’t been a feature bearing his name released since. Until now, that is.
The Fighter is a movie that Mark Wahlberg has been trying to make for a long time, rightly recognizing that it had a great role for him at the heart of it. Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a scuffling, lower tier boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts. His attempts to make a name for himself are hampered by the interference and strife he endures from his overbearing family, especially his older half-brother, Dicky Edlund, a former contender turned crack addict. After failed attempts to get the film made with other directors, Wahlberg turned to the man who’d cast in him in two prior features, David O. Russell. Working for the first time with a script that’s not his own (or at least lacking in enough of his contributions to get him an official screenwriting credit), Russell regains the discipline that slipped away from him in Huckabees. The film is lean, smart and paced beautifully, hitting storytelling beats that are familiar, but no less satisfying for it. Russell lets scenes play out with a minimum of fuss, but a keen eye for telling details. He is fully committed to the time, place and culture of his film. It’s based on a true story, but there’s not a sense that it is driven by a fidelity of fact as much as a commitment to getting the feel right, a goal it achieves in marvelous form.
There’s an aggrieved bustle to the family scenes, this agitated clan fueled by dual engines of pride and respect. In the middle of this hubbub, Wahlberg plays his scenes quietly, almost introverted, swallowing his lines and never quite able to confront those who are jostling him around. He’s a fighter in the ring, but an avowed conscientious objector in his personal life. It’s a nice choice that takes advantage of the natural heightened sincerity Wahlberg brings to every performance, and it adds additional emotional heft to the inevitable moments when he does assert himself. There’s also a terrific performance by Amy Adams as the college dropout bartender who becomes Micky’s girlfriend. As much mileage as she’s gotten in recent years from leaning on sweetness and twinkle, this is the sort of role she should be playing now. It brings out her strength, her toughness, her forcefulness, her churning mind.
Good as those and other performances are, the film truly belongs to Christian Bale as Dicky, the jittery, troubled favored son. This is partially due to perfect casting, allowing Bale to fully employ the fervent, pushy mannerisms that have undercut some of his performances in the past. It’s to Bale’s credit, however, that he never lets his work degenerate to an empty acting exercise, as best demonstrated by examining how his performance subtly shifts in the second half of the film. He’s clearly playing the same person who burned anxiously through the first half, but Dicky’s uneasy rehabilitation means Bale now plays him with just a hint more stability. The difference is both slight and significant, and Bale admirably remains true to his character where he resides at that moment.
Despite working with the sort of sports story that usually inspires a heavy hand from the director, prodding the audience to their heart-soaring reactions like an adult guiding a child to their assigned seat at a formal event, Russell defaults to fine restraint. Maybe he’s confident that the tale is strong enough that he doesn’t need to falsely energize the audience, or maybe he’s learned that sometimes less is indeed more. Regardless, he makes The Fighter into a film that bolder, braver and better than it seems at first glance. And, as it turns out, he’s also made a film that, like its subject, a humble boxer who never gave up, approaches greatness.