Film Review: “Southpaw”

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Southpaw poster.jpg

Southpaw, 2015
dir. Antoine Fuqua
Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker & Rachel McAdams

I surprised myself earlier this year by really enjoying Foxcatcher. From a distance the film seemed to have all the ingredients neccisary to cook up some loathing in my belly. There was a gimmicky character performance from a comedic actor, Channing Tatum and a focus on that thing I can stand least of all: machismo. I confess to be the male equivalent of those teenagers who like to tell everyone they meet that they’re “just not one of those girly girls, you know? I like to hang out with the guys!” I personally am turned off by any film that attempts to examine the male condition; Fight Club, please; any war movie, give me a break but I guess I must have turned a new leaf because I liked Foxcatcher. I liked it a lot. There was a visual poetry to the thing. It found fascinating ways to tell a story about a small group of men forced to use physicality and aggression in order to communicate some deeper affection. It was a tragedy in more ways than one and subtle too.

Although Southpaw somewhat appears to be riding on Foxcatcher’s coattails, in its advertising and premise alone (replace wrestling for boxing and a dead brother for dead wife as the ever-brilliant Rachel McAdams falls afoul of a refrigerator early on in the film) Southpaw lacks the subtlety of its predecessor. In the place of a quiet, struggling misfit (Tatum’s Mark Schultz) there’s a loud, aggressive thug in the guise of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope. In the place of the subtly homoerotic sport of wrestling is big, bad, booming boxing. In the place of a film that slowly, gently plants the seeds of unease in the heart of the viewer only to grow into horror by the film’s conclusion we have melodrama, plain and simple. And yet…

Southpaw may have failed to seduce critics but I found it to be a greatly enjoyable film. The script is careful and doesn’t put every little emotion and thought of the characters into the dialogue. It does a great job of making you feel the physical and emotional pain of 12 rounds in the ring. It convinces you, heart and soul to care about who wins at the punching game in and incredibly tense final act. Somewhere along the way a violent thug is turned into the most sympathetic of characters and his struggles with the loss of his wife and legal battles over custody for his daughter are engaging.

The film’s extroverted nature simply works although it does get a little silly at times with its pornographic examination of Gyllenhaal’s physique and bombastic Eminem theme song. There were moments in the cinema I wondered if I was the only one there who could see that the Emperor’s new car was just compensating for a certain lack of something else but in the end I fell to its blunt but passionate charm. Maybe I just need to face the fact that I’m not so different from everyone else and there is a place in all our hearts for the stench of testosterone and balls. Maybe I just thought the father/ daughter relationship was cute. Who knows?

Review By Stephen Higham

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