The Fighter‘s first sequence places the camera behind Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), as his brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) throws fake punches behind him. They play fight as Dicky welcomes a documentary crew to his hood at Lowell, Massachusetts. You see the brothers, the crew, the neighbors yet the neighborhood feels uninhabited and thus, artificial. The rest of the film feels that way, the small city, both depicted with interior and exterior space, feels sunny bot not vibrant. The camera then zooms out with the same speedy feel as director David O. Russell’s earlier work Three Kings or the opposite yet reminiscent of, dare I blaspheme, a shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
Lowell, Massachusetts, where everyone wears a size too small except for Dicky, who, despite revealing musculature later in the film, has an emaciated face floating above ratty oversize t-shirts, and for a while, Micky, better dressed than his brother, who tries to hide that he’s getting fat for lack of exercise. When they’re physically in shape, Micky and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) would have their enviable three percent body fat sticking out on top of their boxing shorts or cutoff jeans.
The movie also makes Micky look short (in reality Wahlberg is 5’9″), since no one that jacked could weigh 145 pounds. I’m not saying that the clothing nor the physicality does all the characterization – I’ll have a lot to say later about those aspects of the movie. I just like those details within the costume or mise-en-scene popping up once in a while.
I’ve previously said that I can’t relate to trashy characters. How many times do I have to say that I hung out with a bad crowd in high school or work with the working class now before it sounds like I’m appropriating something that isn’t mine culturally? I don’t feel comfortable in saying that I can relate to the characters and the situations they get into. It has already thrown and turned off some audiences against the film. But I feel like I can relate to these characters.
The playacting violence that for some reason is associated with both fun and survivalist thinking more than performed working-class masculinity. Their gestures. Dysfunctional families and in-laws. Women who are tough and foul-mouthed. Trouble with the law. Characters who are oblivious to the self-serving nature of their actions. I especially like scene when Dicky realizes that he’s hours late to train his brother. Of course he’s late. I can assume, consuming drugs in his level, that if he starts a session at 8 o’ clock, he’ll be lucky to realize that he had to get out.
Or like mother Alice (Melissa Leo) booking Micky into one badly matched HBO fight after losing another, not realizing she’s hurting and exploiting a son who may not wanna continue into this career. Expecting different results. O. Russell shows how poverty can induce insanity without harshly labeling these characters as insane. If any of us does the latter, then that’s our fault.
Harsh verbal and physical confrontations. Terrible ideas of trying to unsuccessfully scam people out of their money. Any of these things can be a subject for one movie. And it all feels real coming from these actors.
Like movies with trashy characters, we see a substantial amount of physical antics, bad decisions and yelling here, but none of those three things take the forefront in the film. Or at least we aren’t welcomed into the storm, as the film’s continues that with the family explaining which of their members are Eklunds and which are Wards, treating this fact of their lives matter-of-factly and without shame. And then two bar fights happen, one between Micky and another guy and another between two women. O. Russell knows how to stir the pot at the right time.
Another instance showing the character of the Eklund-Wards is when they’re watching a documentary about Dicky’s crack addiction – they’re bravely confronting the reality of their situations. The only time they’re hesitant about the material is when Alice tells Dicky’s son to stay upstairs or when Dicky, now in jail, unplugs the big TV set to stop the schadenfreude from the other inmates. If anything they’re prouder to watch this than to watch the first rounds of Micky’s fights. While that doc is playing on HBO, Micky’s college dropout girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), instead of avoiding ‘white trash,’ knocks at his door and slowly, like a human being, reaches for his hand.
It also helps that Charlene has the best lines of the film and steals the show. From contending with pretentious film patrons on a better side of town while on a date with Micky as well as confronting his family members, she sure knows how to stand her ground. A scene with her in the lions’ den of Micky’s sisters and another when Dicky makes an impromptu visit to her house make her an integral part of the best ensemble acting this year. Even in a scene when Alice tries to explain to her why he’s not sitting on a stool. Yes, that was Alice’s moment but it says a lot about her character that they have made peace that way.
There are negative effects and connotations to the film’s ‘team effort’ feel. From the first sound of the film – hearing Dicky’s voice as he talks both about his career and his brother’s, the audience knows that this isn’t Micky’s film. Charlene and Alice dissuade Micky from giving up, which would be encouraged even by a different peer group within the town. Micky’s dependence towards other characters shows how weakly written his character is, and that can be said about the rest of the characters too. The script then, despite its wonderful cadence, serves to be a impressionistic work on characters grinding against each other’s nerves. The characters then, have to have these fights and verbal exchanges a hundred times to grow as human beings.
So is this movie trying to say that what happens about the characters are more important within the characters? And it is true that it takes a long time for people to grow, and that evolution gets slowed down by poverty, lack of education and drugs. Although those things allow perseverance.
I didn’t have those questions while watching the movie. If you sat in the same theatre as me, you’d think I was watching the best movie ever. 4/5 rating because of the arguably shabby script, but it created characters I’ll love and cherish until another charismatic ‘hillbilly’ comes along.