It is not exactly Rocky, and though ostensibly about the fighting in the ring, The Fighter, a brilliantly understated film directed by David O. Russell, is about the fight within one's self and within the matrix of our most important relationships. It is a movie about resilience. Mickey Ward, in a similarly brilliantly understated performance by the very fine Mark Wahlberg (who was also the driving force behind the film, and one of its producers), has lived his whole life in the shadow of his older half-brother Dicky Eglund (Christian Bale), his overpowering mother Alice (unrelentingly played by the superb Melissa Leo, of Frozen River and TV’s Homicide, from which she was fired—perhaps because real women cops without make-up and heels don’t exist, in TV land , anyway), and his seven uncouth sisters. [I kept thinking that the seven dwarves had taken up with the wicked stepmother.] Micky fights his way back from repeated losses in the ring, but more importantly, repeated losses to his sense of self vis a vis his family, for Alice repeatedly fails to have a ‘gleam in her eye’ for Micky: “Why can’t you be happy for me?”
Micky’s mom, and his initial manager, Alice demands accommodation from all her children, retaliating with rejection when one of her daughters dares to offer a different perspective. Micky tells Alice, “Can this be my fight, Alice, for once?” and “…I thought you were my mother, too.” Alice and a small coterie of fans see Dicky (because he, also once a boxer and intial trainer for Micky, allegedly knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring) as “the pride of Lowell” (once a textile manufacturing town that peaked at above 100,000 people) despite that he is now a skinny, skittish crackhead.
Bale’s performance dominates the movie and garnered, rightly so, the Oscar nomination. Dicky, in a parallel process, overshadows Wahlberg off screen as well for the Academy often goes for the performer who, by playing the outlandish or over the top character, stretches the limits of range (e.g. Theron in Monster or Hoffman in Rainman). Dicky, too, fights his way back, from addiction. Micky gains his confidence, and the movie triumphs. Even the cliché about how the love of a good woman (Charlene Flemming, played by Amy Adams, of Doubt, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) is so seamlessly woven-- after all, this whole film is based on a true story-- that we are pleasingly satisfied. It is a gem of a movie.