Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him gets his life back on track after losing his wife in a tragic accident and his daughter to child protection services.
Directors sure do love a boxing ring, that great square where (usually) two men face off in a battle that is often about more than sport. The ring is a great place to put a camera and there's the obvious, easy metaphor that boxing provides: the fight, you see, is really the fight of life. Many venerable Hollywooddirectors - Scorsese, Eastwood, Mann and Howard - have (thanks to Sylvester Stallone maybe) made boxing pictures for that particular reason. The thing is that there's so much contained within the bounds of those ropes, all the struggle and triumph and defeat of life, neatly compressed into 12 rounds. This movie is one of those films you think can't get worse but it does, it really got worse for this guy in this story of rise-and-fall-and-rise-again.
Their daughter evolves into a central character as the film goes on and the legal system seems equally cold and unjust as money-grabbing fight organisers, in taking Leila away from him; though it also motivates Billy to mature into a responsible dad. By now you've probably heard a lot about Jake Gyllenhaal's astonishing physical transformation, to a point where he's even hard to recognise in the opening shots. But generally speaking the cast is incredible, they're all great actors. Harvey Weinstein loudly speculated at earliest Cannes Film Festival preview that Gyllenhaal would receive at least an Oscar nomination for his breathtaking transformation here, partly as "revenge" for previous snub in the best actor race for last year Nightcrawler.
Spectacle of Gyllenhaal throwing himself into the role of Billy Hope with a sort of abandon that makes even his creepy, Gollum-like part in last year's Nightcrawler look like a drama class exercise by comparison. He's never looked tougher on screen. In fact, he's virtually unrecognisable here, which in this case is more than enough to satisfy the expectations of a truly great performance. It's a solid piece of acting, one that never lets us forget every ounce of effort he should have gone through to achieve it. Billy's character is thrilling to watch and the only unpredictable thing in this 2-hours-plus-movie.
Gyllenhaal manages to give his character a raw inner ferocity, turning his pain into an unarticulated rage. You get the sense that the ring is a place where he finds peace through oblivion. You can practically smell the blood, the sweat and the fierce rising from Jake Gyllenhaal's bruised and tattooed body. When his character is in emotional agony, you got it, you know it, you feel it and you're there. He created something complex and arresting at the same time, within the character of Billy. That's more impressive than anything the actor has achieved with his personal trainer. He's hands down a fantastic actor even with this relevant physical appearance.
Moreover, Rachel McAdams has more to do than I worried she would, and is slightly better than the material. She gives Maureen more tangible humanity than her "I'm worried about you, baby" character might otherwise get. I loved Forest Whitaker in the role of the rough old trainer with a heart of gold as well. Particularly a scene where he points to Billy's fists and says "Boxing isn't about this. It's about this. It's a game of chess." pointing to his head.
However, there's nothing truly out of the box in this competent and effective first screenplay by Sons of Anarchy creator, Kurt Sutter. The second act slows down for some growing up time away from the ring. The action scenes are pumped up and the emotional time-outs smoothed over softly with James Horner's last score that ranges from moody to rap. The boxing scenes themselves are dynamically lanced and cut, always seeking to position the viewer in the midst of it through wide array of camera angles. Especially the climatic fight between Billy and his mortal enemy, is appropriately brutal and undeniably exciting. Finally when it's done well this film involves nuance and the subtle submission of self - which are imperceptible and utterly mysterious.
Overall Southpaw may be thudding around from cliché to cliché and lack of narrative agility but when it gets to the ring, it knows just what to do. It's all about the fight, the rest is just hype.