“I started boxing when I was 12 years old,” says Dicky (Christian Bale). The screen cuts to a home movie of a kid in trunks, punching, then back to Dicky, leading a camera crew along a sidewalk in Lowell, Massachusetts. The cameraman is asking about his younger brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), who’s about to come into view. He’s the one “right on the corner there,” pointed out by Dicky’s hand, huge in the frame, punching. While Micky tries to get his brother to join him on the job—they’re supposed to be repaving the street before them—Dicky’s on a tear. He gestures at his baby brother, calls him “a heavy hitter” with a “thunderous left punch.” Dicky goes on: “He likes getting on the inside, I stay on the outside.”
Dicky’s assessment sets up the basic dynamic of The Fighter, which is based on the real life story of the Pride of Lowell, light welterweight champ “Irish” Micky Ward. Dicky is the archetypal outsider, a onetime gonnabe champ who fought Sugar Ray Robinson and then succumbed to crack addiction. In between highs, Dicky’s been Micky’s corner man. Currently, at this moment in The Fighter, he’s the subject of an HBO documentary: the crew’s tracking him on the sidewalk as he greets his neighbors, who look alternately encouraging but also vaguely suspicious of the camera crew he has in tow. While Dicky insists the project concerns his imminent “comeback,” it’s not long before you see that it’s about his addiction, that is, his lost promise and dire present.
The movie-within-a-movie complicates the premise of David O. Russell’s film, which otherwise teeters close to boxing-pic formula, that is, the working class athlete who fights his way to glory. His determination is admirable, his skills prodigious. And he’s got more than his share of obstacles, beginning with his no-money background and parasitical brother. Or rather, beginning with their mother, the relentless Alice (Melissa Leo), who’s long managed their careers, overlooking Dicky’s, um, shortcomings while pressing Micky to make up for them.
Micky’s up against it, a point embodied by his mom, whose jewelry clatters and cigarette is ever lit. She wears tight white slacks with strappy heels and midriff jackets. Her focus is mostly intense, except when she’s distracted, which tends to happen when she’s mad at Dicky. She’s also got seven daughters by Dicky’s long-gone father, their hair teased and scary, their faces permanently fierce. Though she occasionally calls the girls by name, mostly they lurk as a herd at the back of frames, nodding in support of her every pronouncement.
Partly comic and partly ominous, the daughters serve as daunting counterweight to the girl Micky comes to love, a local barmaid named Charlene (Amy Adams). While she’s got her own past to live down—she went away to college and failed out, because, she says, she partied too much—Charlene is soon Micky’s designated salvation. She sees right away that Alice’s management is lackadaisical and uniformed, that she exploits one son to make rent money while indulging the other. When Micky brings Charlene home to meet the family, the room breaks down into corners: Micky and Charlene on the sofa, arms entwined, Alice at the table, typically dismissive but unusually ineffective. Micky’s dad George (Jack McGee) intervenes, insisting they all “let [Micky] talk,” as the sisters watch, offering the occasional bon mot not. Micky needs to make a change, he insists. And so the film’s essential crisis is set in motion.
As much as Dicky tries to keep the HBO camera focused in his direction and as much as he tells himself (and everyone else) that he is, eventually making that comeback, Russell’s movie is concerned with Micky, who finds a new trainer and manager, who has his father’s blessing (even though, George acknowledges, his disloyalty causes him endless trouble at home). The fighting in the ring becomes montagey —Micky wins bout after bout, he trains, he travels to Vegas, he smiles, at last.
At the same time, the fighting among the family members becomes increasingly hysterical and screechy, the girls deciding to accompany mom to Charlene’s apartment, where they plan to bully her out of their lives. Imagine their surprise when this soft little chippy hits back: the camera lurches during this brawl on the porch so as to recall the boxing matches. When it’s over, Micky heads back to his new corner, inside Charlene’s apartment building, closing the door on Alice and the pack of sisters. The camera watches them from the porch as they return to their vehicle, muttering and furious, not defeated so much as regrouping, as if to insinuate that there will indeed be another day.
As The Fighter presents fight after fight, the tonal quirks and distances don’t ask you to disinvest so much as they invite you to consider the many ways that audiences—you included—shape what you see. Whether Micky’s in the ring or Dicky’s in the street (or, eventually, in prison, watching his HBO documentary with a crowd of fellow inmates, seeing himself as they might), the fights are all performed for someone else. The movie’s lurchy and odd, the rhythms uneven and the emotions excessive. But it’s aware of what the fighters must come to see. For all the film’s insistence on the stakes they have in one another, their faith in their brotherly bond despite all odds, they are in the end performers, performers who pay dearly.