Indie darling David O. Russell took some time off before directing The Fighter, and his sabbatical proved successful, at least in a critical and commercial sense. Since then, he has been on an Oscar nomination roll, having become a go-to acting-awards-nomination machine for talented on-screen performers all across the land. He also used his time away to develop a genuine aesthetic for the big leagues, that of an admirer of Old School ’70s populism. Which is to say, he is a director interested in walking up to the cliffs of darkness, peeking over, tempting the odds, and then stepping back and having a beer or two with old friends. Some of his earlier efforts were compared to Robert Altman (although not as much as fellow late ’90s indie darling Paul Thomas Anderson was Altman-fried in the media). It is true that the scrappy, concussive, ragged qualities of Altman are generally in effect in Russell’s films. But the director of The Fighter is far more the populist than the crabby Altman ever was, and it must be said, Russell’s films are consistently less formally interesting than Altman’s ever were.
Boasting a burly, husky, somewhat flabby screenplay from Scott Silver and adapted from true events, Russell’s The Fighter wholly exists in this quasi-populist mode. Taking place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it largely centers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), an up-and-coming Lowell, Mass boxer who is struggling in and out of the ring. But the film finds its footing in Micky’s brother Dicky (a phenomenally fleshy Christian Bale), a past-his-prime boxer who was a flavor-of-the-moment in the late 1970s and has since descended into the mire of crack-cocaine abuse. Dicky wants to train Micky to earn a little success-by-proxy. Their mother Alice Eklund-Ward (a scene-stealing Melissa Leo saddled with a somewhat unfortunate, classist role, which says nothing of the cringe-inducing depiction of her many daughters) desperately wants the two sons to bond as a family and bring success to the family name together. Something that Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams, who is treated with much more respect than any of the other women in the boy-centric film), Micky’s girlfriend, doesn’t particularly care for, thinking that Micky needs to go off on his own and fly from his family’s nest.
Russell does his best to dance around the somewhat unnecessarily bifurcated structure of the film, interweaving and contrasting the rise and fall of Micky and Dicky and what sometimes feel like too much artificial, contrived drama to count. Sometimes, the film does so to fascinatingly fractured and scraggly results. But other bits are a tad predigested and overly-belabored, and although Russell is generally competent behind a camera, he doesn’t have the heart of a great stylist.
At the very least, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (then largely unknown in the US) is consistently sterling, picturesque when it needs to be and grubby, immediate, and greasy when it needs to be, and he more than any one else sells the dichotomy of the two main characters and the way their paths intersect not only narratively but visually. If Russell should be credited with anything for The Fighter, it is bringing Hoytema an increased popularity in the world of cinematographers and allowing him pathways to the new toys and tricks afforded by bigger budgets.
Outside of Hoytema, The Fighter is a resolutely well-crafted film, but not a special one. It earns as many points from its somewhat innovative Rocky meets Raging Bull structure as it loses from the melding (the magnetic meeting of tones is valuable but under-formed, and a fuller expression of either the populist side of the film or the grungy, dejected side probably would have been a better, more singular, more cohesive film overall). Two films later, Russell still hasn’t broken out of this “make it serious, but not too serious” attitude toward his films, making all of his works appear more, dare I say, middlebrow than anything else. It is as though he wants to feign darkness without actually giving in to it, which makes his films much more middleweight than they ought to be (it is not for no reason that his best recent film is also his most openly lighthearted, American Hustle, a work that makes no pretense of seriousness). As talented as he is, and The Fighter is a good film with talents aplenty, you kind of wish Russell would just pick a path (be it bubbly, zippy anarchy or bruised, ravaged destitution) and stay there.