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'Jawbone' Challenges its Viewers: Should a Film Be Judged By Our Gut or Mind?

Johnny Harris as Jimmy McCabe

This is a film to be felt, to be lived, and it should be remembered and written about as such -- a film pulled up from the guts of its storytellers.


Director: Thomas Napper
Cast: Johnny Harris, Ray Winstone, Michael Smiley
Studio: Vertigo Films
Year: 2016
UK Release Date: 2017-05-12

If contradiction could be described as an inescapable shadow, then the space between the ropes offers a stark image of this conflict. Cinematically, perhaps none more so than Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) has captured this with a clarity of vision. The marriage of Pietro Mascagni’s romantic melody Cavalleria Rusticana, to the slow motion cinematography of the balletic-like fighter, is a rendition of extreme pictorial and musical beauty. Yet in the opening bout versus Sugar Ray Robinson, the mix of sweat shimmering in the light, the war paint of blood trickling down LaMotta’s face is an immediate reminder that here is a space defined by contradiction.

Indeed, it offers a powerful depiction of a stage upon which the practised art or craft is brutal, yet possesses the beauty of movement, instinct, and strategy, all of which is meticulously captured by Scorsese’s attentive eye. Yet perched between the title sequence and first bout is LaMotta rehearsing in his dressing room for ‘An Evening With’. Thirty-six years after the release of Scorsese’s film, his rhythmic and playful words chime with the poetic philosophy of ageing boxer Ray (James Cosmo), in Paul and Ludwig Shammasian’s The Pyramid Texts (2016). Together these two films frame the fighter as a man of words, a beauty of poetic expression from two souls whose craft was one of violent blood and sweat.

Written by star Johnny Harris and directed by Thomas Napper, Jawbone is the hard hitting and economical type of boxing film. It recounts Harris’ own experiences battling addiction, and while the angst-filled Jimmy McCabe may echo other cinematic boxers, from Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954), to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy "The Great" Hope in Southpaw (2015), here is a film that lacks concerns with aesthetics or philosophy.

Jawbone tells the story of the down on his luck former youth boxing champion living with past mistakes, blighted by struggles with addiction, who has to dig deep when he agrees to an unlicensed fight up north against a reputed savage fighter. Jawbone offers an impression of emerging out of a deep-rooted desire, although this image of it being pulled up from the creative guts of its storytellers may be attributed to the narrative that is realised with absolute belief and enthusiasm.

Yet beyond this impression lies a contradiction, because the resolve of the storytellers elevates the experience above and beyond how the film is seen in hindsight -- a solid piece of unremarkable filmmaking. It is here that Harris and Napper present us with a quandary: Should a film be judged according to our gut or mind; our subjective emotional experience or objective contemplation? If contradiction is the inescapable shadow, then alongside Raging Bull and The Pyramid Texts, Jawbone draws our attention to another contradiction: the experience versus the reflection of art.

In spite of an archetypal story that never strays from the well-trodden path, there are subtle flourishes that the astute eye will be attentive to. The eviction from his home where his mother died a year before goes hand in hand with his return to Bill’s (Ray Winston) boxing club. While the physical connection to his mother is lost, the return to train around former friends, Bill and Eddie (Michael Smiley) emphasises the fading past, and how lonely and isolated a life can become. From Jimmy’s reliance on these now distant relationships to the boxing club and the ring, the only places he can find a sense of belonging, his story is one of pulling the past out of the shadows to reconnect, and to rebuild a life blighted by past mistakes. The skill of the storyteller can be measured by those subtle moments that are liable to go unnoticed, moments that are the thread of the story that give a narrative direction, but more importantly, a purpose.

Whether in hindsight or in the present, the end credits are hounded by the adage of how a story can be made or saved by its ending. The bout is a deftly executed crescendo and while it lacks the stylistic flourish of Scorsese’s cinematography, it's crafted by storytellers that know both how to tell the story of a fight and to extract the thrills of the drama. Napper’s camera is unintrusive, allowing the experiential hell and disorientation of the bout to find expression through the emotions of the characters, yet the cinematography creates a claustrophobia that exposes a further contradiction. The sequence is cut to a natural rhythm that grants the camera a transparency, yet the intimacy with the action questions the camera as unintrusive -- the film form constructed of unique angles and points of view that distance its affinity to the human gaze.

With its lead actor as the screenwriter, it's no surprise that Jawbone is a film built on the back of its cast, from Winstone’s gentle father like nature to Ian McShane’s devilish gaze and Faustian like presence. While Winstone radiates a warmth, McShane brings a lyricism to bear on his character, recalling Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, a performance that possessed a musical like melody -- the words, actions, and expressions synchronised. But it's Smiley who fascinates, shades of Winstone offset by a quiet frustration, and occasional loud outburst. It's a performance beautifully tempered, bringing a nuance to the temperament of the final bout that feeds off his tense reunion with Jimmy that brings a further emotional and personal dimension to the bout.

Jawbone cannot be discussed without addressing how the film is defined on some level by contemporary British society. From the outset, Jimmy embodies the simmering anger towards the political establishment, specifically what is presented here as a cruel and distant welfare system. Importantly, there's an opportunity for calm discussion regarding the eviction notice and provision of support, which breaks down under the intrusive presence of security and law enforcement. It echoes the oppressive nature of the Conservative government and the uncommunicative chasm that has opened up -- government and the political mainstream void of empathy or an understanding of the plight of society’s most in need.

In spite of a country divided over Brexit, alongside a second potential Scottish Independence Referendum, the government’s message: “Forward together” is countered by Jawbone’s image of geographical divisions. Compared to the resounding chorus of cheers that greet the native northerner, jeers from the hostile crowd offer a northern welcome to London lad Jimmy. It plays on the ill feeling of the North towards the South, geographical, political and social tensions to offer a sense of the strength of the contradictions that permeate British society. It's a reminder that the identification of the ‘other’ is not only the foreign but one that takes the form of the domestic foreigner. Whether conscious intent on the part of the storytellers, contemporary society bleeds into the film and enhances its resonance. Yet it's a reminder of the contradiction of the perceived permanence of a film -- the permanent form of its final cut comprised by the impermanence of any social context.

Jawbone may be an example of the catharsis of filmmaking and storytelling, the first time effort at screenwriting for Harris and feature direction for Napper has culminated in a solid piece of filmmaking. It's a film that needs to be judged by the critic’s gut more than the objective mind, the experience a stirring one that is lost in hindsight. Perhaps Jawbone is a film to be felt, to be lived, and it should be remembered and written about as such -- a film pulled up from the guts of its storytellers. Yet in looking to recent independent cinema, the starkness that is echoed in director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch’s Lady Macbeth (2016), Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (2016) and Rachel Lambert’s In the Radiant City (2016) is reminiscent here. These films capture the spirit of ideas and emotions through silence, and in the case of Jawbone, the blood, sweat, and violence between the ropes.


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