Southpaw (2015) Review
This story is so incredibly straightforward that in lesser hands it would easily be a dud. It’s like somebody bought the screenwriter, Kurt Sutter, a color-by-number boxing movie template: champ loses it all, becomes the underdog, gets another shot at glory, training montage, big fight, WHAM. Nothing new or spectacular in the structure, not even any standout dialogue. But what director Antoine Fuqua does with this template is like what would happen if you handed a color-by-number to Monet. All these rich and unexpected layers come out to play.
Fuqua’s corpus consists of mostly just-okay big studio movies, but once upon a time his Training Day promised greatness. Most of the power of that film came from its gritty naturalism, a difficult feat for a director to pull off when simultaneously portraying people from several walks of life—especially gangsters, which are so easy for out-of-touch filmmakers to ham up. Fuqua relies on his well-honed naturalism to lend dynamic unpredictability to each scene, so that even mundane moments are infused with believability. He does this by employing two tools: muted cinematography, and an amazingly well-cast and dedicated group of actors.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation as Billy Hope is so complete that it doesn’t really stand out. But that in itself is shocking, especially considering he just came off of being a scrawny, bulgy-eyed, smiling sociopath in Nightcrawler. Here he has morphed into a ripped athlete that has come into fame out of poverty, lacks a solid education, and communicates in aggression. What makes the character complete is that Gyllenhaal finds the fundamental insecurity beneath his violence and bravado, which manifests physically as he hangs his head, mumbles, and shifts on his feet.
Forest Whitaker plays the perfect foil as Hope’s coach, a washed-up fighter trying to provide a moral haven for local lost kids. It would be easy for an actor of Whitaker’s caliber to play such a character as a wise sage, but instead he smartly plays up the man’s vulnerabilities: a drunken bar advice scene is incoherent, a simple line (“What the fuck is this shit?”) is delivered to God with existential panic. It’s real.
Just as powerful are the film’s female performances. Rachel McAdams takes her brief, over-sexualized role and creates a real person whose death scene is one of the most harrowing, tragic, and realistic that I’ve ever had to force myself to sit through. And Oona Laurence, who just came off of playing the title role in Matilda, shows wisdom, grace, and precision beyond her years as she inhabits the mind and emotional swings of a traumatized child. That she can sing, dance, and lend gravitas to such a big character on the stage and also nail all these subtle layers on an unforgiving camera speaks to her immense talent. Her future is blindingly bright.
That the cinematography isn’t flashy is also a shocker, especially since it’s coming from Mauro Fiore, who has done such films as Avatar (for which he won an Oscar), Real Steel, and Smokin’ Aces. But he also did Training Day with Fuqua, and in this film we can see a resurgence of that grittiness combined with more clean and confident adrenaline-fueled fight scenes. With surprising fluidity, we move from feeling as if we’re watching a real fight on HBO to stepping into Hope’s shoes and getting peppered in the ring.
As you can probably tell at this point, the beauty of this film is in the craft rather than the story. Especially in the first half, there are a few too many moments that wallow in the depths of Hope’s crumbling universe. It slows the pace, which on the one hand gets you properly begging for a comeback, but on the other prevents you from wanting to watch it again any time soon. That said, it is incredibly human and takes you on a full emotional rollercoaster. And the fight scenes are truly intense, if that’s what you’re looking for. Only one complaint: nobody lands that many punches.