We don't choose the families we're born into, and yet we are shaped for better or worse by the people we are forced to live with for at least the first 18 years of our lives. Most people luck out and find love, support and friendship from the ones they grow up around. Others suffer lives of physical or emotional abuse. But then, perhaps the hardest situation of all to deal with is when someone is stuck in a sort of limbo, whose family loves them and wants the best for them but simply has no clue whatsoever about how to provide it.
That's the kind of dilemma that Boston boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) faces in the new biopic The Fighter. At heart, he is a quiet, soulful man who wants to do the right thing with his life—and yet, he has been surrounded by a family of drunken, uneducated losers who have forced him into a life of journeyman boxing and still seek to control his career moves well into his 30s. That's because Micky is the younger half-brother of Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), a once-promising prizefighter who got hooked on crack a decade ago and has been spiraling downward ever since.
And so it is that Micky is forced to live as a surrogate for Dickie's dashed dreams and abject failures, taking the literal punches that Dickie avoids both in the ring and outside it, and watching his brother stuck in a haze of cloudy crack smoke. But two things are about to shake up the brothers' lives and give Micky a chance to finally pursue his own dreams on his own terms: Micky meets a bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams) who encourages him to pursue a better life and offers him unconditional love; and Dickie is snapped into awareness about his pathetic life by an HBO documentary he thought was about his delusional “comeback,” but which really set him up as an example of the destructive influence of crack in America.
The resulting combination of changes in these core relationships forms the uplifting and powerful basis of one of the year's absolute best films. And despite the fact that the film utilizes frequent profanity as an excuse to make its depiction of life in the poor South Side of Boston realistic, for those who can overlook the language, The Fighter offers a powerful portrait of Christian redemption as well: Dickie drops to his knees in anguished prayer when he hits rock bottom, and the brothers are shown praying quietly at key moments throughout the rest of the film.
The three leads deliver astonishing performances, as Wahlberg ranges between animal ferocity in the ring and sensitive anguish in his home life, displaying this inner conflict expertly at every moment. Adams is rock-solid as a woman who feared that she drank away her own opportunities but jumps full-force into life with Micky, forming a couple who bring out the absolute best in each other. As the brothers' mom and boxing manager, Melissa Leo—a veteran actress who has been breaking through with Oscar-caliber work for the past couple of years—provides a combination of pathetic humor and proud fury that will likely see her competing with Adams for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars next spring. But Bale is the true force of nature here, losing dozens of pounds to achieve the gaunt look of a junkie, then filling out with muscle as Dickie regains control of his body and his life. This team of actors—backed by some of the most realistically downtrodden actresses seen onscreen in ages, playing the boxers' sisters—has just been nominated for Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards, meaning all four are likely to be competing for Oscars.
Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) brings it all together seamlessly, creating a 21st-century Rocky that will also stand the test of time. The Fighter is well worth knocking out a few bucks for at the multiplex this weekend.