Overview: After the murder of his wife, a championship boxer falls apart only to be given a second chance. The Weinstein Company; 2015; Rated R; 123 Minutes.
Comes Out Swinging: We meet Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a boxer far less formidable than other opening act boxers from classic cinema. Billy punches first and thinks rarely. In technique and narrative execution, the Billy that exists in the first chapter of Southpaw might function better as an opponent placed as the midway turning point matchup for a hero in a more traditional boxing movie. Director Antoine Fuqua has always attempted to strip the extra weight from his plots so that his stories can be communicated by exceptionally complex acting. But in Southpaw, he leaves way too much at the door. Fuqua and writer Kurt Sutter seem to possess only the barest understanding of both boxing and cinematic storytelling. Boxers punch. Good boxers punch harder and more and get punched less. Pianos sound sad. Blood means hurt. When characters die, audiences feel things. It’s determinedly basic, and if the filmmakers intended all of it to be elevated by a performance, they at least chose the most qualified actor available.
Sets Up With a Right Jab: Boxing films, no matter their narrative arc, come pre-equipped with a fascinating conflict. To be a boxer, one must have an embedded need for punishment; but to succeed as a boxer, one must be grounded (at least temporarily) by a distinct (if volatile) understanding of one’s value and worth as a person. Trace the line through the classics and it’s evident in the case of Terry Malloy, Jack LaMotta, and even Rocky Balboa that the the most certain cinematic pleasure comes in watching this duality wrestle itself in contexts inside and out of the ring.
In Enemy, Gyllenhaal displayed a stunning ability to portray a fractured identity as two singular and distinct personae (I think), and in some ways, he attempts to do that again through another outstanding performance as Billy Hope. When Gyllenhaal is left to author the character, Billy reads as two individuals. One, a clueless man whose desire to do the right thing is confused by juvenile sensibilities, emotional instability, and an underdeveloped notion of masculine identity, and the other a self-destructive monster who feeds on the despair and pain of the first. For several movies, Gyllenhaal has been performing with the sort of atomic discipline that begs comparison to Marlon Brando. When Southpaw allows Billy sturdier support posts–that is, when a ham-handed story leaves Gyllenhaal to act against the talent of Forrest Whitaker (Tick Willis, Billy’s second trainer), or even young Oona Laurence (who plays Billy’s daughter Leila)–he finds all the empathetic heft this kind of character needs. He builds a new person in inarticulate and self-doubting speech patterns, through eyebrow flexing and an inability to hold eye contact. His performance isn’t even limited to his physical being. Gyllenhaal somehow seems to act even with his air and spittle. There are moments where a helplessly wounded Billy bleeds onto himself, both figuratively and literally, and Gyllenhaal allows that second nasty character to erupt. Gyllenhaal is able to showcase the way that the inner-beast feeds on injury.
Misses With a Big Left Hook: But it’s almost as if Fuqua and Sutter are afraid to explore that damaged vulnerability. The writer/director pair push forward to predictable plot beats that ring hollow, postmarking the redemptive victory long before the fight is even scheduled. It’s all as emboldened as Billy’s last name. Leila’s spelling words generically illustrate her father’s character. A side plot builds for less than five minutes of screen time regarding a troubled teen (Skylan Brooks) in Tick’s gym before the kid is murdered off-screen in a cheap effort to stir up irrelevant emotions in a wholly irrelevant scene. Every other scene offers a blunt and unnecessary reminder of the murder of Billy’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), right up to the final fight when Billy’s opponent Ramone (Victor Ortiz) needlessly whispers a malicious sentiment into Billy’s ear. Southpaw becomes so materially concerned with its superficial redemption narrative that it never allows Billy (or Gyllenhaal) to get into the ring with himself.
Overall: When Brando and Robert De Niro, at career peaks, took on similar characters, the result was milestone cinema. I’m making this comparison freely, because at this point in his career, Gyllenhaal is fighting to stand in rank-and-file with those big names, and if his comparable turn as a damaged, fallen prize fighter comes up short, it should be noted that those earlier performances were met halfway by their writers and directors, where Gyllenhaal’s is not. But if and when this fighter gets a Scorsese in his corner, look out.