One of the most frequently repeated criticisms I've read of David O. Russell's latest film is that it ended too early. Reviewers familiar with "Irish" Micky Ward's career often opined that the film would have had a more fitting climax had it shown Ward's fights with Arturo Gatti, which are considered some of the best, from an action standpoint, of the last decade. Never mind that Ward lost two of three of those bouts; they're all presumed to be more dramatic or cinematic than the fight in which Ward actually won his championship and which closes The Fighter. These complaints missed the point. The complainers thought they were watching a boxing movie, or The Micky Ward Story, instead of the film Russell made, which is about something else.
The confusion may be understandable given that the film is named after Mark Wahlberg's character and that Wahlberg has top billing. But you may recall that Christian Bale won an Oscar for playing Ward's crackhead brother, and that Melissa Leo won an Oscar for playing their trashy, controlling, clannish mother, while Wahlberg went home empty-handed. That's because he walked into a kind of trap. Sometimes the lead actor or star is doomed to have his film stolen from him by a flamboyant supporting player. But The Fighter is a film designed to be stolen from its star by everyone else on screen. This isn't Wahlberg's fault, unless you blame him for taking the part in the first place. He actually gives a very creditable performance, but the story requires Micky Ward, the ostensible man of violence, to be the relatively calm, almost passive center of a maelstrom of dysfunction. Everyone in his orbit is some sort of white-trash gargoyle, including not just his mother and brother but all his shrieking skanky sisters and even his otherwise sympathetic girlfriend (Amy Adams was also nominated for an Oscar), who becomes as territorial and possessive toward Micky while protecting him from his kin as they've been protecting him from her. The irony of the piece is that Micky doesn't see why everyone should be fighting over him. Forced into an either-or choice late in the picture, he rejects it. The film's been setting us up to want him make a clean break from his dreadful family, but at the climax, which comes before the title fight, he insists that he can't walk away from either his family or his girlfriend or his new handlers -- he needs them all on his side to prevail. There's something almost wholesome about the film's endorsement of compromise, however anticlimactic it may seem in performance. And when you consider that that's Wahlberg's big moment rather than any fight he's in, you see why he's been eclipsed, however unfairly, by his supporting cast.
By comparison, Christian Bale dominates the film as if this were the Dicky Eklund comeback story that his character presumes that the HBO crew is shooting as they follow him into crack dens. Look at the poster above and tell me who the star is. If you told me that second-billed Bale actually had more screen time than top-billed Wahlberg, I'd believe it. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with this, except that it doesn't make sense to nominate such a performance for Best Supporting Actor. Bale is clearly the co-star of the movie and the Academy should have treated him as such. As for Melissa Leo and the other performers, I'm not familiar enough with them to judge their skills as actors, but they were uniformly convincing in their trashy roles, while Russell planted them in an equally convincing milieu. Style takes second place to storytelling here, and that's appropriate for the subject matter.
Micky Ward presumably had his family issues straightened out by the time he fought Arturo Gatti, so from Russell's standpoint there wasn't really a story left to tell, however dramatic fight fans found those battles. But I can understand the reviewers somewhat. A few years ago, after watching Cinderella Man, I thought that Ron Howard should have ended it with Jim Braddock losing his title to Joe Louis, one hero yielding his place to a greater, but not without a valiant struggle. Given that Braddock did floor Louis during that fight, I felt that it had real dramatic potential. But Howard had told the story of overcoming adversity and despair that he wanted to tell, and I don't think his film is really worse for ending when it did. The same goes for The Fighter. Sometimes boxing films are about more than boxing, and then the last thing they need is more boxing.
...But for those who are curious, here's the sequel, Ward-Gatti I, as condensed and uploaded to YouTube by the folks at HBO.
April 28th: And here's another sequel: Alice Ward, the fighters' mother, passed away this week.