T.I has a line in one of his songs, where he says "God will take you through hell just to get you to heaven" and in many ways, Southpaw is the embodiment of that notion. Here, we are watching a man's life descend into utter despair, and the movie feels ugly and raw as it will constantly beat down the audience just as much as Billy Hope, the central character. The central theme revolves around redemption, yet in many ways this is a movie that embodies this idea of a rebirth, where Billy must die before he could be reborn. He destroys himself and in turn destroys the relationships he's built, primarily with his daughter, and through the despair he's plunged into, mostly of his own doing, he must wake up and begin the fight to earn his life back. This movie is dark, brutal and often times feels hopeless as we plunge deeper and deeper into the damaged psyche of our main character, but form that despair we eventually rise from the ashes and begin the journey that will forge the path toward redemption. This is a film where, brutal as the boxing sequences may be, the sport itself takes a backseat to the relationships forged and lost, and to the redemptive nature of the story itself. Boxing is simply the tool used to spotlight the central struggle, and the boxing in and of itself is simply a metaphor for life itself, where the action in the ring perfectly reflects the turmoil and triumph outside of it, and as Billy works his way back to the top, he also works his way back to regain everything that he has lost. Highlighted by a grueling performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and a tender performance from Oona Laurence as his daughter, this is a film that reflects Rocky more than Creed, and even though the journey was grueling, as the credits roll and the film ends, it was a journey that was fulfilling nonetheless.
This film uses an interesting tactic, as it presents a fall from grace before the eventual redemption and triumph. If you look at a lot of other sports movies, they’re these universal underdog stories about the little man getting a shot and making the most of it. Whether it’s something lie Rocky or Creed, to Warrior and Hoosiers, the basic idea for a lot of sports movies is this basic underdog story. Southpaw separates itself from these by displaying a character who had everything and was on top of the world. Then his wife dies in a tragic accident, and the film plunges us into a world of anger, despair and loss, and in the most literal sense, Billy Hope loses everything. His boxing license is revoked, he loses his daughter to child services and in essence, loses her love for letting this happen, and he loses his house and his money. And the film presents us with a scenario where sometimes, the greatest triumphs in the world are attained after your biggest losses, because you have to lose something to understand that you took it for granted, and in that you learn to simply appreciate whatever you have, and the film takes us on a journey which represents that.
After Billy loses everything we are introduced to Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), the manager of a boxing gym who offers Billy a job and decides to train him. Whitaker plays this character with weight and as a living person, where the character is not necessarily a broken man, but he is looking for some light as well, and possibly even on the same redemptive path as Hope. The beauty of this character is that he felt like a real, human character who might exist in the world we live in. He felt like a character with a past, who has his own life off screen, and he is the one that stole the show. It was through Tick’s bond with Billy and their building relationship that he second half of this movie was built on, even though the central struggle was Billy trying to reform his relationship with his daughter, but it was through his relationship with Tick and as they built their bond, Billy was able to come to grips with himself and try to better himself for her. Even though his daughter expressed hate and sadness and anger, deep down she still loved Billy, and Oona Laurence gave a transparent performance as this child who was going through the same thing as the father, and she felt abandoned and lost. That’s what this film did perfectly. Even though it masqueraded as a “boxing” movie, in essence this film hinges on the relationships it sets out to build. It is about the loss of trust between father and daughter, and gaining that back, but it also sets out to create a father-son type relationship between Billy and Tick, since Billy came up in the foster care system and never really had anyone like that, Tick acts as that mentor and father figure, and their relationship is explored to great extent.
And yes, this is a boxing movie, so naturally he was going to get a chance to earn that title back at the end, and naturally it was going to be against the man that was there when his wife was shot, and the man he’s blamed for so long. But what I thought they did so well in this scene was how they kept cutting back from the fight to his daughter who responded to the hits and bruises that her dad was racking up. Usually in a movie like this, when it cuts away from the action, we don’t care about the person the camera focuses on because that bond hasn’t been built well enough (like in Creed when it would cut to Tessa Thompson. That relationship wasn’t built well enough for me to care about her reaction), but with Southpaw, because of the relationship we’ve seen them built and what they’ve gone through, our heart jumps when Billy gets hit and we see Oona cover her eyes and yell, because that is her father, and even though she knows he takes a beating for a living, it’s another thing to physically see it with your eyes (her mom never let her watch the fights). So this was the first ever fight she was watching, and when her dad got hurt so did she, and the last fight sequence, while filmed with precision and brutality, had this extra layer of emotion built into it because of Oona’s reaction to the action in the ring.
In that last fight, he wasn’t just fighting for the title, but he was fighting to earn his entire life back, and he was fighting for the daughter who once thought her father had given up on her. What else would she think, when in her father’s grieving over the mother’s death he neglected her, and they went through their own grieving processes separately instead of together, so through all of the turmoil and bonds breaking and reforming throughout the film, Billy was fighting for everything he had gone through. In Rocky, he simply wanted to go 12 rounds. In Warrior the two brothers were fighting for the money for their own reasons. In Creed Adonis just wanted to be taken seriously and earn his name. In Southpaw, Billy was literally fighting for his life and the life he once had. That’s why I found this film so powerful, because of the constant parallels between Billy’s life inside the ring and out of it, and in that final fight, it was about more than the fight, and this film had my heart pounding as that fight rolled on, and at multiple times I was ready to jump up and cheer.