Before sitting down to watch The Fighter, I’d been having a discussion with a friend about whether Christian Bale is a Great British Thespian Export, or an overrated actor that gets by on scowling and weight loss.
It started because I’ve always had the same problem watching him on screen, ever since American Psycho – I’m always aware that I’m watching Christian Bale, whether he is parading around in latex (Dark Knight), escaping a POW camp (Rescue Dawn), or being confused, aimless and hungry (The Machinist), his acting is so LOUD and INTENSE that I could never get over the Bale-ness of the performance and focus on the character. You can see him acting his chiselled chops off but it always looks so forced.
And for that very reason I was uncertain of what to expect from The Fighter.
The film follows a pretty traditional path in many ways; the local-boy-works-hard-and-fights-his-way-out-of-a-small-town story that is well worn and could easily have been Rocky with Crack (Crocky?), were it not for David O. Russell’s brilliant direction, casting and writing. With films like Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees under his belt, this was probably never going to run the traditional course of a ‘sports movie.’ (Though he is signed up to direct a video game adaptation, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, so maybe age is mellowing his indy spirit.) But this isn’t a sports film, it’s a family saga. The boxing frames the story of the Eckland/Ward family, in the small backwater town of Lowell, with a host of brilliantly drawn characters fighting their own battles and struggling to succeed.
Mark Wahlberg’s understated performance sees his character, Mickey Ward, constantly trying to juggle his commitments to his family and his desire to succeed professionally; Christian Bale, as his brother Dickie, is fighting his own battle with crack addiction, gradually destroying his reputation as the prize fighter and ‘Pride of Lowell’, descending in to a fantasy world where he still relives his one Sugar-Ray Leonard knock down. Their mother Alice, played brilliantly by Melissa Leo, is constantly battling to keep a tight grip on her family, unaware of the damage she is doing to her family.
All of their struggles could have been rendered bleak and depressing, but thankfully, the whole film is shot through with a good hit of humour. Whether it is Bale launching himself from a 2nd story window to escape his mother, or Amy Adam’s unexpected but excellent tirade of expletives on the phone, the humour helps elevate the film from mawkish, gritty drama to something uplifting and positive. Coming from the man that managed to bring a few laughs to the Gulf War, you would expect nothing less from a director like Russell.
And it is Russell’s direction that really makes it stand out. The camera jumps, skits and tracks unpredictably so you’re never sure what could happen: tragedy is always waiting just off camera. He knows when to pull away and let his characters interact, or when to zone in on their world weary faces. But more than anything, he lets the cast shine. And not one character feels poorly drawn or two dimensional. Every one of these people feel real (it doesn’t necessarily help that they are based on real life characters, see Blind Side), bringing this story to life in a way that none of the other Oscar contenders’ managed to do.
And so back to Bale. Does he deserve all the praise? Well, yes. As the drug addled Dickie, he brings humour, emotion and tenderness to the role, constantly getting himself in to trouble with the law, his mother, and particularly Mickey but still managing to make you like him and care about him- a first for me in a Bale film (I’m not including Empire of The Sun.)
But unlike many of his performances, there is no ‘Bale the Ac-tor’ here; he chews scenery certainly, his range of emotions is vast, sometimes squeezed in to a single scene, but this is a raw, honest and committed performance that is so good, he absolutely deserved the Oscar. But not only is it an amazing performance, it’s generous too, never overshadowing Wahlberg’s brilliantly restrained turn as his patient younger brother.
All in all, a brilliant film. So good, that Russell should have won Best Director and Wahlberg should have been nominated for Best Actor. The most surprising thing about this film is that it took Hollywood ten years to realise this was worth financing- but better late than never.