The Fighter (2010)

2016 #80
David O. Russell | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar-winning true-story drama that relates the early career of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a coulda-been-a-contender type held back by the training of his half-brother, ex-boxer turned drug addict Dicky (Christian Bale), and the management of his controlling mother (Melissa Leo), not to mention the cadre of harpy-ish sisters. Micky gains some confidence after entering a relationship with barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who’s prepared to stand up to his family. He breaks away from them and gets better opportunities, but soon realises that to win he’ll need to combine the best of both worlds.

I swear, written like that it sounds much cheesier than it plays.

I don’t normally care for boxing movies (I even gave the sainted Raging Bull just 3 stars), but I rather enjoyed this. Perhaps that’s because it’s about the familial drama as much as it is pugilism, but then the same could be said of Bull, so who knows — maybe I’m just becoming inured to the sport. Heck, I even found myself invested in the outcome during the climactic bout.

Nonetheless, the film’s real meat lies in the dysfunctional family drama that informs events in the ring. Kudos to whoever had the cojones to focus on the story of Micky Ward establishing himself as a world-class boxer, leaving out the three later fights that really made his name (talk of a sequel covering those seems to have died down, I guess because this film wasn’t a blockbuster so presumably didn’t do sequel-justifying box office numbers). Maybe the story behind those fights forms a good narrative too, but there’s plenty enough here to merit the focus and form a neat narrative — it doesn’t need a fourth act covering three more fights.

Although this is technically Ward’s story, it’s as much about his older half-brother, washed-up fighter turned part-time trainer and full-time crack addict Dicky Eklund. It’s another of Christian Bale’s extreme weight gain/loss roles (in this case, loss), but there’s more to it than such physical exertion. Bale inhabits the character, and a brief clip of the real Dicky during the credits suggests he’s done so very accurately. His performance is mesmeric and definitely worthy of that Oscar. For the rest of the cast, Amy Adams holds attention equally in a less showy role, and even Marky Mark isn’t half bad. Melissa Leo also won an Oscar for her performance, which I forgot until I read so after — it was the one she controversially funded her own ad campaign for. I guess that paid off.

David O. Russell stages things with a kind of documentary-esque realism, down to capturing the fights on period-authentic SD video (according to IMDb, they used actual HBO cameras from the time, No-style, rather than just degrading the footage). In trying to figure out why The Fighter worked better for me than Raging Bull, I was left wondering if this was part of it… until I re-read my Bull review, which specifically noted that the “camerawork […] seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism”. There I called it “boring”; here, I felt that gritty, almost happened-upon rather than performed style seemed to suit the seedy world of boxing and the rundown lives of these people. Clearly I’m clutching at straws — my distaste for Bull does not boil down to “I thought it was shot wrong”.

The Fighter isn’t without its faults, though. There’s a certain element of cliché to the story arc — whether that’s just fact emulating fiction, or the screenwriters imposing familiar shapes on to what really happened, I don’t know. It could also stand to lose a few minutes here and there, especially when it goes round in circles about whether Micky should be trusting his family or not. And talking of movie clichés and comparisons to other films about fighting, watching it in close proximity to Warrior just highlights the other film’s outright manipulation and definite use of cliché, especially in its climax. I’d say this is the better film, with a more interesting, plausible depiction of fractured family dynamics, and a climactic result that didn’t feel telegraphed from act one.

It’s fair to say that I primarily chose to watch The Fighter so I could tick it off lists of “films directed by David O. Russell” and “Best Picture nominees”, and wound up rather liking it. If they ever get the sequel off the ground, I’d certainly be up for it.

4 out of 5

Prisoners (2013)

2016 #22
Denis Villeneuve | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yesterday I wrote about Predestination, a twisty sci-fi thriller in which I guessed all the twists long before the end, but it didn’t matter because the film had more to offer. Today I find myself in the same situation: Prisoners is a thriller (though not of the sci-fi variety) centred around some mysteries that lead to big twists, all of which I guessed with complete accuracy about one-third of the way through.* I don’t say this to boast — well, I do a little — but my other point is this: while it proved a bit of a distraction, occasionally feeling like I was sitting through aimless red herrings as I waited to be proved right, there’s more to Prisoners than just OMG moments.

We set our scene on Thanksgiving in the small, slightly rundown Pennsylvania city of Conyers, where the Dover and Birch families gather for the traditional lunch at the latter’s house. As things transpire, they can’t find their two little girls, and a suspicious RV parked down the street has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they call the police, who track down the RV and its driver, an adult with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. The girls are nowhere to be found. He’s the obvious suspect, but he couldn’t’ve taken them… could he? As Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues an increasingly complex investigation, unsatisfied Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) thinks he might need to take matters into his own hands…

There’s a lot going on in Prisoners. While the basic format is straightforward, it’s realised in the form of a multi-stranded narrative full of well-drawn characters with complications of their own. Jackman and Gyllenhaal may be top billed and on the poster (well, an air-brushed waxwork vague approximation of Jackman was on the poster), but there’s actually a powerful ensemble cast here, and it’s their performances that help the film to stand out from the thriller crowd — as well as to overcome the fact I guessed all the twists.

So we have: Maria Bello as Grace Dover, who begins to crack under the mental pressure of her daughter’s disappearance. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch, who, based on their houses, is clearly in a better financial situation than Keller, but is he man enough to help Keller do what he feels needs doing? His wife, Nancy, played by Viola Davis, may at first suggest a fragility to match Grace’s, but it soon becomes clear she wears the trousers in this marriage. As mentally stunted suspect Alex Jones, Paul Dano gives a well-managed dialogue-light performance, not straying into caricature. The aunt who raised him, Holly, played by Melissa Leo, is protective, but also doesn’t seem all that shocked by the accusations levelled against him.

Then we do have our two leads. I think Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki may be supposed to come across as a first-rate cop — he’s certainly so good that he can tear his Captain a new one about not doing stuff properly and not get a dressing-down for it — but he struck me as a little less than ideal. I mean, he’s effectively a small-town cop suddenly stuck in a child-kidnapping (and possibly murder) case — of course he should be out of his depth. He’s not a bad detective, just not the usual genius-level investigator you normally find in thrillers, and at times you feel he’s muddling his way through the investigation as best he can. Aside from giving Loki the slightly-affected tic of blinking too much, Gyllenhaal offers a reasonably restrained performance. (I’d love to know what the blinking was in aid of, but the film is woefully understocked with special features.)

Jackman gets a showier turn as Keller Dover, the dad who prides himself on being a strong, capable, prepared-for-anything kinda guy. This is partly a value his father instilled in him, he tells his son, but you have to think there’s an element of it being a response to the emasculation of not being able to fully provide for his family — there’s not much work around, he mentions, and their home environment clearly isn’t as well-appointed as the Birches’. He does have a basement full of survivalist gear, though, and we first meet him coaxing his son into shooting his first deer. This is a man ready to do what he feels is necessary, and what he feels is necessary takes him — and, by association, several of the other characters, and indeed the whole film — to some dark places.

Not that the film needs any help accessing dark places. The truth behind what’s happened to the girls is very dark indeed… though that would be spoiler territory. I thought it was a good solution, even if I did guess it so early on, but I’ve seen others suggest it’s too neat. I dunno, but I think it’s come to something when a film answering all its questions and explaining all its threads is seen as a bad thing.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction gives the sense of a non-Hollywood background with the occasional arty shot choice or composition, though not to a distracting extent. He’s aided by serial Oscar loser Roger Deakins on DP duty, who once again demonstrates why he shouldn’t have a golden man already, he should have a cupboard full. The photography here doesn’t flaunt itself with hyper-grading or endless visual trickery, but is consistently rich and varied. Deakins may also be the best action cinematographer working — pair what he brought to Skyfall with a climactic car dash here and you have a more impressive action demo reel than you’d expect from the kind of guy who has multiple Oscar nominations to his name.

In the end, I find it a little hard to succinctly assess Prisoners. We have a film of complex characters brought to life with vivid performances, though the latter are not adverse to an element of grandstanding, and some of their actions slip into genre familiarity. So too the narrative, which for all its twists and turns isn’t a world away from any number of airport-bookstore doorstop thrillers — and that length is certainly mirrored in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. The fact that I was waiting for my predictions to be confirmed also colours my perception somewhat, because while I don’t think the film completely leans on its twists, it was a bit of a distraction. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the quality of the moviemaking, particularly Villeneuve’s sweeping direction and Deakins’ rich cinematography.

As a thriller that is also a drama about people caught up in those events, and the lengths to which some of them may be prepared to go, Prisoners is a must-see for anyone with the stomach for some dark material (though don’t let me overemphasise that point — it’s not as bleak as, say, Se7en). Is it a classic in its own right, though? Not sure. But it is very, very good.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Prisoners is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* For those playing along at home: the precise moment I got it (explained in non-spoilery terms) was when Det. Loki visits an old lady and watches a VHS. ^

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

2007 #28
Tommy Lee Jones | 116 mins | DVD | 15 / R

The Three Burials of Melquiades EstradaEmpire gave this film one of their five-star reviews, immediately making me want to see it. Shame they overrated it then.

A confused first act (which jumps about in chronology for no discernible reason) gives way to a more linear second two that, while more pleasing, seem to do away with major characters for no reason other than the plot ran out of things for them to do.

The film has its moments, and some pretty views, but five-star it ain’t.

3 out of 5