Editor’s Notes: Southpaw is out in limited release this Friday, July 24th. For another perspective on the film, read Southpaw: Part Standard Clichéd Underdog Story and Part Overwrought Disaster by Jason Mckiernan.
As far as leading men go, Jake Gyllenhaal is undoubtedly one of my favorites. He’s wonderfully understated in Donnie Darko, expertly childlike in Zodiac, captivating in Prisoners, and unsettling in Nightcrawler, all of which are brilliant films themselves. In Nightcrawler, however, he adopted the Christian Bale tactic of losing or gaining weight for a project, dropping in pounds and blood for the role of Lou Bloom. It was an attempt to enhance the character’s inherently nightmarish nature, and it paid off. So, upon hearing of his opposite approach to Southpaw, in which he bulked up immediately after being so underweight (like Bale from The Machinist to Batman Begins), I was intrigued with no hesitation. That being said, Antoine Fuqua’s recent efforts have failed to offer much other than surface-level entertainment, and it would certainly be satisfying to come out of Southpaw having seen something more than a comeback flick that puts its violence on a pedestal. And, thankfully, it is indeed something more.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays father and light-heavyweight champion Billy Hope, a fighter whose strategy consists of taking punches, getting angry, then promptly annihilating his opponents.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays father and light-heavyweight champion Billy Hope, a fighter whose strategy consists of taking punches, getting angry, then promptly annihilating his opponents. After successfully defending his title and taking a fairly violent beating in the process, his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) desperately wants him to quit while he’s ahead. The thought of doing such a thing is seemingly alien to him, as he brushes off Maureen’s insistence like a paparazzi. Days later, they attend a charity event together, after which Billy is provoked and taunted by another fighter. He responds violently, and in the commotion, Maureen is shot.
As Billy watches her die in his arms, his psyche is broken, and he spirals downward in a maelstrom of self destruction. Custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) is taken from him to to the dismay of them both, and in the meantime, his behavior only gets worse. Everything else he cares about soon disappears, and the only thing left to do is cooperate with court-mandated therapy and the guidance of his new employer/mentor Titus (Forest Whitaker). As he improves himself, both as a fighter and as a father, he begins his trip down the road of recovery to regain what he’s lost, and become a better person for it.
Southpaw is a film fervently against the concept of blind violence, using a familiar approach to the subject of boxing as a way to illustrate that.
Southpaw is a film fervently against the concept of blind violence, using a familiar approach to the subject of boxing as a way to illustrate that. It opens on a brute-force reliant Billy, under direction that paints his fights, bruises, and lifestyle in a good light. Once Maureen dies, and Billy begins his downward spiral, the film has two places to go. There’s the path of the revenge-fantasy, depicting a final “this is for my wife” brawl between him and the fighter whose actions supposedly killed Maureen that night. Alternatively, however, there’s the path of the revenge-fantasy subversion. A film that sets in motion what’s necessary to pursue a revenge-fantasy climax, like a musclebound man hitting rock bottom because his wife was taken from him, only to instead discuss the notion that he may have inadvertently brought it all upon himself. Through therapy and conversation with Titus, Billy discovers the reality of the rage-capitalizing world he’d been in through his entire career, and in turn, how he had tragically let it seep into the fiber of his being. At this, he decides to return to the ring with Titus’ coaching in a metaphorical fight against his old life, adopting a newly methodical, defensive, and controlled strategy.
This subversive telling off of typical boxing mentalities is juxtaposed over somewhat indulgent cinematography, complete with several instances of slow motion and racking focus. There’s even a training montage set to an Eminem song, but, these qualities give the themes a sandbox to play in. For example, that Eminem montage bounces back and forth between both Billy and his eventual climactic opponent training. But while we see the opponent doing nothing but lifting tires and slamming punching bags, we see Billy improving his form among other strategic aspects of what he’ll bring to that final match. This illustrates what they each stand for in a covert and wholly satisfying way. And, the film does feel shorter than it should, with a lack of buildup to the finale, but considering the evolution Billy goes through, it makes sense. Once he comes to the realization that he’s been governed by dangerously raw emotion, that’s exactly when he stops being governed by said emotion. The only thing left to do is defend that newfound self-awareness. It’s realistic, and worth sacrificing a reliance on standard cinematic form.
Jake Gyllenhaal does wonders with his role, depicting a personification of dangerous fury when necessary, and displaying calculated regret at all the right moments. But, honestly, the star of the show is Oona Laurence as his daughter, who is without a doubt the most skilled child actress I’ve seen this century. She emotes in a way just as powerful and controlled as her adult counterparts, playing a character who’s aware of how responsible she is for her father’s wellbeing, yet is as scared for him as someone her age should be. Together, Laurence and Gyllenhaal wholeheartedly sell Southpaw, a monument to retaining control in a manipulative world, whether you’re domineered by those capitalizing on your pain or by the pain itself.
Laurence and Gyllenhaal wholeheartedly sell Southpaw, a monument to retaining control in a manipulative world, whether you're domineered by those capitalizing on your pain or by the pain itself.