The Fighter is the new film from David O. Russell, something of a comeback for the director, at least in terms of Oscar nominations. His previous films were the fantastic Three Kings and the under-seen I Heart Huckabees. These films mixed barbed social commentary with humour that could sometimes verge on the ridiculous. With The Fighter, however, he seems to be on his best behaviour.
Based on a true story, the film centres on the relationship between two brothers, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), a small-time pugilist desperate for the chance at a title shot, and Dicky (Christian Bale), the older of the two whose chance has come and gone. After an embarrassing defeat, Micky begins to reconsider the quality of his mother’s (Melissa Leo) and his brother’s management. Into the fray comes Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky’s love interest, who starts to come between Micky and his family.
This is a film with Oscar written all over it, packed as it is with actors putting on accents and engaging in largely overwrought shouting matches. Bale’s performance is an inch away from a comedy routine, while Adams overdoes her cold and cynical role and Leo plays a cantankerous and irritating woman that, as was possibly intended, becomes incredibly irritating to watch. Only Wahlberg plays his role with subtlety and restraint. A good performance though it is, it can’t help but be drowned out by the much louder, much more broad actors around him. In some scenes in which the focus should be on him, he is barely audible. Otherwise he is absent from the screen as the film pays more attention to Dicky’s character arc (Micky doesn’t really even have an arc), the filmmakers themselves seeming to have forgotten who their film was supposed to be about. When Micky complains that his brother is overshadowing him and that no one listens to him, you really do believe him.
As drama, it is gratingly authentic, with the scenes of the large family squabbling resembling real life family arguments. It becomes repetitive, hard on the ears and very annoying. In the end, it is rather hard to care about any of them. The same can be said for the directing. Russell drops the experimental and vibrant visuals of Three Kings for a more award-friendly hyper-realism. Without any of his usual trademarks, the attention is forced to remain fixed on the annoying family on the screen while the tripod-less camera merely shakes to and fro in an effort to add a layer of immediacy that is neither needed nor wanted. As well as that, the boxing matches are lazy. The editing speeds up but the heart goes out of it.
Without the ingenuity, power or the patience of Raging Bull and The Wrestler, The Fighter is a film with few likeable characters, few nice visuals and a lot of shouting. Here we are introduced to a family that no one would want to spend time with as well as a group of actors ruthlessly playing their parts bigger and louder to attract attention. The fact that Bale, Adams and Leo were all nominated, though Wahlberg wasn’t, indicates the state of the Hollywood drama. Yelling, evidently, can cover up any shabby writing, dull directing or mismatched performance.