Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a mumbling undefeated light heavyweight boxing champion. Adopted into the world of boxing from a life of juvenile delinquency and living in an orphanage, fighting is his sole catharsis for his aggression. He hits hard and moves recklessly in the ring, refusing even to block a punch. He lumbers around, spitting blood and screaming intimidating exclamations. His career is one of pride and success, and he is well on the way to becoming one of the best in the sport.
Then, everything goes south. You can sense it in the very first fight of the film, which is a pulse-pounding and electrifying sequence. The commentators are eager to mention that the fight is going far deeper into the later rounds than anyone would have expected, Hope taking some heavy hits and moving slowly. Hope’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) shows concern in her eyes. Hope still manages to win, but it feels like a hard blow.
Following the fight, it is easy to sense the quick, stubborn temper of Hope. He shows visible signs of slowing down, each punch knocking an un-payable toll out of him. Still, he also has an undying love for his wife and daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Leila lays in bed and counts the wounds on her father’s face as he looks on, glad just to have the moment with his daughter yet visibly tired and sad that she must see him like this.
After the untimely death of his wife, Hope spirals downward, both emotionally and with his career. He suffers a loss in his next fight, refusing to even raise his arms, instead deciding to take the full brunt of each hit. The catastrophic masochism of Hope’s willingness to die fighting is palpable in the scene, which continues on far beyond what is comfortable until Hope’s trainer finally throws in the towel. This sudden inability for boxing to provide catharsis to Hope causes a violent outburst that ultimately ends his boxing career. Unemployed and emotionally unstable, he loses everything, including custody of his own daughter. He must reshape his entire life in order to get her back.
Southpaw is the conventional case study of self-destruction. Family fracturing. Financial woes. An implosion of the self. But Gyllenhaal centers the case study with visceral ferocity. As usual, he disappears into his character. In one scene, Hope sports a lazy drawl as he stumbles through a speech that would not be as heavy if it were not for his pregnant pauses and strained delivery. His face is consistently painted with deep emotional pain and, at times, faint glimmers of hope.
Without Gyllenhall, the film would become a redemption story wholly run by convention. Characters who aren’t Hope lack any depth. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays Hope’s money-obsessed manager who seemingly has a history with Hope and his family but always opts for the sure thing when it comes to business. Where he initially appears to be on Hope’s side, he is quickly downgraded to a petty antagonist. Forest Whitaker plays Tate Wills, Hope’s new trainer, a stoic guru figure who does nothing more than train Hope to block. There is a subplot with a child training at Wills gym that appears juicy with pathos, but even that falls to the background. It is resolved suddenly and unceremoniously.
The film simply loses its way in the middle. The back and forth between Wills and Hope is a sharp left turn from the animal ferocity of the first third of the movie. The fury in Hope subsides, and the fury of the movie’s tempo dies with it. This segment of the film could have been remedied by giving Wills more depth as a character or fleshing out the subplot with the child training at the gym.
Southpaw succeeds on Gyllenhaal’s performance alone, and that isn’t quite enough for the film as a whole to succeed. The boxing sequences are exciting, but they are few and far between in the middle of the film. The initial fight is particularly engaging, immediately drawing the viewer into a world of almost nihilistic pain. Extreme close-ups are visceral and somewhat disorienting, aiding the mood of the scenes well. The final fight scene also uses interesting POV shots, pulling the viewer into both of the fighters as they exchange tired jabs. All of the boxing matches are well choreographed and filmed.
The film is a better boxing movie than it is a tale of redemption. The boxing matches are the most fascinating scenes to watch, and the rest of the movie is only accessible through Gyllenhaal’s performance.
Southpaw is worth a watch for Jake Gyllenhaal alone. I have come to really enjoy Gyllenhaal’s role choices. However, it may not be worth a theater price. Consider renting this one, unless you really like Gyllenhaal or Antoine Fuqua. If renting is the case, you can find the pre-order for it on Amazon Instant Video here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Southpaw? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)