Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miguel Gomez, Skylan Brooks
Director of Photography: Mauro Fiore
Music by James Horner
Edited by John Refoua
Written by Kurt Sutter
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rating: 6,5 out of 10
Southpaw is an utterly conventional and manipulative movie that is only saved by one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s most unique (and best) performances as the boxer Billy Hope. Gyllenhaal is not just good, he creates a character unlike anything we’ve seen before. Hope is so different and ambiguous. We cannot entirely figure him out, but that is part of his appeal. If you have seen the trailer, you basically know everything about the movie’s standard plot. There are no surprises and the emotions asked of you are a high form of manipulation. On some level it still works (daddy-daughter dramas always get me), but I still have to criticize the movie’s laziness. The script by Kurt Sutter is a mess, leaving many plotlines unresolved and instead relying on us knowing how these stories usually go. Aside from some questionable shots, Antoine Fuqua’s direction is well done, especially the boxing scenes. I would recommend the movie only for Gyllenhaal’s performance, although it is strangely effective if you turn off your brain.
When it comes to female roles in this movie, there are two issues I see: one is the Rachel McAdams role of Maureen Hope, the protagonist’s wife. She is a strong-willed woman, making all the decisions for Billy (which is the way he wants it to be) and being on his side. As well as McAdams plays her, though, she never has a chance to become a real character with individual motivations. She is killed pretty early in the movie (in a scene that sets up some crime mystery that is never followed up) and sets up the plot for the rest of the movie. Which makes me wonder, is she a Woman in a Refrigerator? By definition, it is a female character who is just killed off as a plot device, often to further the male character’s arc. Based on that definition, I have to say, yes, that’s definitely the case here. And it’s too bad because Maureen is both an interesting character and another fine performance by Rachel McAdams. But this movie is about Billy, so everyone just serves to his purpose. She is killed, so that he can go through changes that give the movie an interesting story. Of course tragedy is often used as an inciting factor, but the way it is done here makes it seem more forced than natural.
It doesn’t help that the movie’s general view of women is not so great either. In every one of the four boxing matches we see, there are shots of the number girls, very often close-up butt shots. The first and second may seem like random atmospheric details but after a while it becomes an annoying sexist pattern.
The movie’s protagonist, Billy Hope, comes from a poor childhood, growing up in a foster home, going to jail, having to work his way up. Naturally, he is white (originally this movie was written for Eminem). No problem, especially considering how convincing Gyllenhaal portrays him. But, there is a problem when you look at the many black characters standing on his sideline. Jordan (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson) is his manager and only cares about money. Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker, really good of course) becomes his new mentor and is full of wisdom. Mrs. Rivera (Naomie Harris), a social worker, grows from skeptical to supportive with notions of romantic interest. Even Hoppy (Skylan Brooks), the little boy from his gym, is just there to admire him and then be killed off-screen. And his opponent, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), a Latino, automatically has to be a villain. All these “ethnic” characters just play their assigned stereotypes as supporting characters to Billy’s story.
And that’s another issue I have with this movie. It’s the ending of Real Steel all over again. Billy fucks up everything in his life, gets bankrupt (we never learn to understand how), loses custody of his daughter who ends up in a foster home (and has to suffer for a while before that too), takes too many drugs (I guess, another mysterious implication of the screenplay) and takes a long time to turn himself around. Which he does by starting to fight again, which is exactly what got him into trouble the first time (and is something his wife had asked him to stop doing).
But in the end, during the “big fight”, his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence, who is great too) and Mrs. Rivera cheer and fear for him, as if this is his big heroic deed. As if it is all about him. Their forgiveness and support is so misplaced and only there for dramatic effect. Because he is the (white male) hero, he has to be celebrated in the end, no matter if it’s justified or whether he has actually learned something. This is why the ending of Rocky works so well, when he shouts his silly “Adrian” because it shows that she’s all he cares about. In the sequels and here in Southpaw, it’s not about him shouting the name of his most loved one but about everyone else shouting his name instead. And with that notion, this celebration of the male success, comes all the problematic issues about race and gender. So, in a way, it’s more than just a conventional story, it’s this pattern, it’s an archetype that reinforces stereotypes that makes life harder for everyone, even white males who have more hope in their name than the other characters have in their ethnicity or sex or age.