The Empathy Deficit of ‘The Fighter’

It happens every year: The Oscar Academy not only is famous for ignoring obvious masterpieces. It’s equally famous for actually rewarding movies that tend to come off as completely bland and airless the moment you start to look for something more than Oscar-worthiness in them (think A Beautiful Mind, The English Patient, Million Dollar Baby). An example of the former will become apparent when, as expected, The Social Network is robbed of a Best Picture Oscar at the hands of The King’s Speech, while David O. Russell’s The Fighter is a clear example of the latter. The movie suffers from what I’d call a severe empathy deficit; it’s too literal and heavy-handed where it would have benefited from holding back; while in other scenes it’s understated to a fault.

These problems are evident from the very first scene in the movie. Ex-boxer Dicky Eklund (played by Christian Bale) strolls down the streets of his neighborhood with his younger brother Micky Ward (also a boxer, played by Mark Wahlberg), telling everybody that a team from HBO is there to make a documentary about his big comeback. The truth, however, is revealed to Dicky, locked up after a run-down with the police, when he triumphantly gathers his fwllow inmates around for them to witness a new beginning in his career. The documentary isn’t about a boxer fighting his way back into the game, but about the perils of Dicky’s crack addiction. The movie thus sets up an argument on his behalf that he’s been treated unfairly by the movie team. The bitter irony of The Fighter is that the movie makes exactly the same error in its portrayal of Dicky and his family. I would have loved to share in Dicky’s frustration, but because the movie has never really grounded him or anybody in his dysfunctional family in any kind of relateable or sympathetic light, I end up just not caring that much.

One of the main reasons is that the movie never really tries to ground the characters’ motivations or the family dynamic at the center of the movie in anything more than broad generalities and circular motivations. At every turn, it simply retreats to let us live comfortably with our preconceived notions about how the characters would react in any particular situation. Unfortunately, in that sense The Fighter reminds me strongly about what I really couldn’t stand about Stephen Daldry’s 2008 drama The Reader. Rather than doing what’s hard but necessary – making us care about yet another story about human imperfection when faced with the horrors of the Second World War – Daldry decided to go with what was convenient and easy. He leaned back, forfeited any attempt at real storytelling, and calculated that a simple appeal to our long-since internalized preconception that the Holocaust was a horrendous crime (which of course it was) would automatically get us emotionally invested in the movie. He was wrong. I wasn’t looking for him to completely alter our expectations of what a Holocaust movie could be like, only he had gone to some length to actually earn our interest. Unfortunately, The Fighter felt just as cheap and risk-averse.

The Ward-Eklund family – Dickie, Micky, controlling mother/manager Alice (bombastically overacted by the Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo), their push-over father, and their seven nasty sisters – may have had hopes and dreams once, but by the time The Fighter gets is done with them, they have all been robbed of any foundation in reality as complex and believable human beings. If the movie had been interested in giving me the backstory to understand why Micky is inclined to keep his family close for career counsel, despite knowing that they’d probably just hold him back, I might have been interested, too. But despite Micky’s brother being a volatile junkie, and Alice being more dedicated than she was good at being a manager, The Fighter asked me to accept broad pronouncements at face value. As far as I can tell, the story of the Ward family’s loyalty boils down to one simple fact; they are family. That may be true, of course, but it is neither a particularly interesting explanation, nor is it a  nuanced one for a family this dysfunctional.

From the beginning, we are told to take sides in favor of Micky and his girlfriend, Charlene, a bartender (played by Amy Adams, a beacon of non-hysteria and actorly finesse in an ensemble of actors all trying to compensate for the flat screenplay by acting as much as they possibly could at every turn), in their fight against his self-pitiying sisters, and the guilt trips so generously doled out by Alice. We are meant to think that the only rational thing for Micky and Charlene to do would be to break off from the family, and pursue their lives and careers on their own. Unfortunately, the film is dominated by something akin to derision toward the hopes and aspirations of Micky’s family – everybody is portrayed as either bitchy, self-absorbed, lazy, ugly, dependent or emotionally manipulative, or all of the above – that it borders on nastiness. Thus, the movie succeeds in its central ambition of making us root for Micky’s break from his family, but it is a pyrrhic victory, in that his is shown in such unfavorable light that I’m having a hard time accepting it when later we are supposed hope for a happy reunion.

I simply don’t believe in these characters. Micky’s seven evil sisters are worst, of course. Not one of them are given a personality to distinguish them from the rest of the pack, and their sole function seem to be to sit on a couch and look miserable, and otherwise act as cheerleaders for Alice, of course in order to convince us of how unreasonable her all-encompassing demand for loyalty is. The movie comes dangerously close to crossing the line into parody in a scene in which Micky’s seven evil sisters talking trash about Charlene is cross-cut with pictures of Micky sensually laying Charlene down on a bed, as if to say that our two lovers need to get away from their simple-minded and unreasonable family in order to finally be free to express their desire for each other.

It’s perhaps symptomatic for The Fighter that every supporting role is written with so little thought given to making them complex and credible, that they often end up seeming like straw men. If this is who Micky and Charlene are up against, they seem to say, it doesn’t even matter if the two of them aren’t terribly interesting. Our sympathy will automatically lie with them anyway, if only because everybody else are so much worse. It’s perfectly possible to portray white working-class people in Boston without having to dig so deep into your library of cliches. The seven evil sisters in particular, seem to have been written this way only to make a point, and not because they are supposed to be believable.

(Now, before we continue, let me just note that I am aware that some have interpreted the seven evil sisters as intentionally cartoonish in a loving kind of way. That may be, particular since almost all the characters in this drama border on caricatures at all times, but nonetheless, it seems to undercut the overall tone of the movie. Also, I don’t think that changes anything with regard to what I’ve called nastiness, closely related to a strain of criticism dubbed, but not endorsed, by Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz as ‘condescending whitezploitation’ .)

But this isn’t limited to the small supporting roles. Dicky and Alice are not written with much more care. Sure, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo throw all they’ve got at them, but they’re beyond redemption. They share just one scene in which they tone it down enough to make for a tender moment, sharing a song that hints at the motivations behind the loyalty the script otherwise only bombastically presupposes. Apart from that one scene, Alice comes off as one-dimensional and delusional (she doesn’t appear to know about Dicky’s drug problem), and as with the seven evil sisters, any attempt to mellow her character consists of unflattering shots of a worn-down face and an bad hair. As if to compensate for the flatness of her character, Melissa Leo routinely turns up the volume and the gestures, but it’s a lost cause.

At first glance, Bale’s performance would seem more accomplished. As Dicky, he is so intense he practically threatens you into paying attention, and for a time he seems like a genuinely interesting and unpredictable character. But even though Bale’s performance is remarkable, in the end, it’s mostly in a technical sense. It’s impressive how time and time again, Bale is able to transform himself, physically and mentally,  into a new character, but to me Dicky never had the sense of vulnerability and emotional depth that would have made me sympathize deeply with him, a reaction necessary for me to cheer for him making it right with Micky. As was the case with Leo, though, I’m not quite sure to what extent this should be blamed on Bale. He’s overacting, sure, but you have to do something to save this script. By the time the emotional payoff comes around, the screenwriters have let Bale and Leo down so many times, I almost felt sorry for them.

Bale isn’t helped by the way Dicky is portrayed non-verbally, either. Heavy-handed clichê is heaped on heavy-handed clichê: A montage shows a devastated Dicky breaking down in a poorly-lit prison corridor. Another invites a round of act as much as you possibly can from Bale, as several memories are played out as a sweating, sick Dicky is gyrating madly in his cell. A low is reached, however, in a confrontational scene from the boxing gym after Micky tells Dicky that he can no longer be part of his team. We’ve already been told in no uncertain terms that the Ward-Eklund clan prefers action over words, and so in anger Dicky thrashes a locker. But in a moment of particular ugly, almost condescending symbolic determinism, Dicky’s young son immediately walks over to the opposing locker and starts to mimic his father. The subtext is clear: Dicky has lost his way in life, and this being a dysfunctional family, we sense the son may be headed for something similar. It’s kind of obnoxious, really. At every turn, The Fighter has told me to side with Micky over his awful family, and even in this crucial moment – in which Micky lays out his qualms for the first time – the movie opts for humiliating its most down-trodden character even more.

For the most part, I’ve been impressed by the overall quality of this year’s Oscar contenders. I have my favorites, for sure, but few movies have been demonstrably unworthy of awards-season buzz. In that sense, The Fighter comes almost as a relief. It feels good to have a movie to hate at the Oscars. The puzzling thing about it is that my hate movie of the year looks poised to take home to sweep the supporting role categories, for Bale and Leo. Come back tomorrow to see who I’d rather see winning.

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One Response to The Empathy Deficit of ‘The Fighter’

  1. Amen, sistah.

    I didn’t hate its hype as much as SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, but it greatly underwhelmed me. After watching it, I thought, “That’s it?” Some good performances by Leo and Adams but that was about it. The boxing scenes weren’t as good or visceral as they should have been. Imagine my surprise when it was announced as a Best Picture Nominee.

    I think the problem is that the Oscar likes certain conventions. With this film, it’s about someone hoping to find redemption AND someone hoping to step out of another’s (preferably someone he loved) shadow. Double K-O.

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