‘The Fighter (blah), that’s like (blah) this year’s The Wrestler (blah)’. Indeed the comparison is inevitable; they are two high profile, Oscar-bait fighting films, helmed by two arthouse directors who were clawing back to the mainstream after two relative box office failures. Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) was an elegiac and beautiful box office failure, David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) was a quirky, smug and self-aware box office failure.
However, it is this element of smug self-awareness that makes Russell’s The Fighter such a joy to watch, and not what one would expect from the sports-drama-by-numbers trailer for the film. The opening shot pans down to a film crew following former boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) as he makes his way through the streets of his home town. ‘This is the start of my glorious comeback,’ he slurs through his crack-addled face. Dicky seems convinced that he is the star of the show and that his story will be one of a glorious resurrection, the feel good hit of the year. However, Russell’s gritty direction does not let the audience believe this for a second, as he captures the numb and self-destructive element of Dicky’s character with a sympathetic eye devoid of hope.
The obsessive emphasis which Dicky places upon his ‘comeback film’, which we later realise is a documentary about crack addiction, infests the mind of his brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), supposedly the film’s actual dramatic epicentre. Micky is convinced that his own film should follow suit, he thinks that he is attempting his own glorious comeback, when the truth is that he is fighting for the right to get started. ‘I’m done fighting, I don’t need it anymore,’ Micky says to his love interest Charlene (Amy Adams). ‘That’s dumb,’ she replies. The film charts Micky’s growth as an individual more than it does his rise as a fighter, as he slowly comes to terms with his right to the role of leading man and decides not to condemn himself to the position of silent witness to his brother’s downfall.
The film’s only major flaw is to be found in the last act, which returns the focus wholly to Wahlberg, and transforms the story into a ‘rise of the underdog’ affair, injecting simplicity into the film as it shies away from the complexity of the relationship between fighter brothers Dicky and Micky. In the sub-plot concerning Dicky’s film, director Russell revels in the post-modern as Micky decides that he now wants to star in a film of his own, which is of course what this has been, and we are invited to view Dicky’s own film, on the other hand, as a joyless parody of The Wrestler. With this in mind, Micky’s wish to separate himself from his self-destructive brother seems to represent Russell’s goal of separating his film from thoughtless and banal Wrestler comparisons.
Mark Wahlberg is on form as the effortlessly charming Micky, whose only fault is caring just too much about everyone in his life, whether they are good for him or not. However, the star of the show was always going to be Christian Bale, whose performance as the deluded and drug-ugly Dicky is Oscar-worthy (and Golden Globe-winning). However, the strength of Bale’s performance leaves one questioning the meaning of the film; Bale’s character Dicky is a man who, albeit questionably, seems to come to terms with having his brother in the spotlight. However, because the emotional strength of the film is always with Bale, this idea is undercut, and he out-acts Wahlberg at almost every juncture.