Silver Screen: Southpaw *1/2
Hysteria is an inherently sexist word. The derogatory term for a state of uncontrollable emotion is derived from the Latin hystericus, which means “of the womb.” The psychological condition itself was once believed to be caused by uterine dysfunction.
The gender-based etymology isn’t just medically dubious and socially regressive— it’s incomplete. Certainly men can be swept up in their emotions, even the manliest of men. In fact, when macho types get carried away in a testosterone tizzy, the effect is so singular it demands its own specific descriptor, to which I submit: testeria.
Writer Kurt Sutter is testerical. His most prominent creation, the biker soap opera Sons of Anarchy, is a veritable primer on the concept. Sons’ bearded, leather-clad bruisers take all their perilous sensitivities to family, children, and friendship and internalize them, process them into various shades of anger, then project those uncontrollable emotions into cathartic acts of aggression. Sutter seems driven to justify these potentially feminized emotions by transposing them with cartoonish extremes of violence and depravity— rape, murder, torture, infanticide— as if to excuse his characters (and his audience) for doing something as potentially unmanly as feeling a feeling.
The boxing drama Southpaw, written by Sutter, is absolutely testerical. It’s a carnival of repressed emotions and their hyperbolic expression, played out in a one-two punch combo of inspirational sports movie and revenge thriller.
In one corner is Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), our swole hero, a thick-bodied palooka with an undefeated record. Billy is a street kid made good who married fellow orphan Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a brassy dame whose moxie keeps her husband’s life and career in line. All Billy knows is fighting. Maureen takes care of the rest, including their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
Tragedy strikes when a melee breaks out between Billy and his would-be challenger, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), during a fit of post-fight braggadocio. Their respective entourages scuffle. A shot is fired, and everyone flees, leaving poor, saintly plot device Maureen dead on the floor. Distraught Billy lapses into a suicidal depression, torn between seeking revenge and punishing himself. He gets himself suspended from boxing, thrown out of his foreclosed house, and worse, watches helplessly as Leila is taken into foster care.
And in the other corner... well, that’s Billy, too. So little time is spent developing potential rival Escobar that he hardly qualifies as an antagonist, even if the big fight against him is predestined after the first five minutes of the movie. Billy’s conflict is internal, and he must work it out with the help of downbeat disciplinarian Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a trainer who runs a boxing gym catering to at-risk inner-city youth. Wills is a kind of Mister Miyagi/Cus D’Amato hybrid whose insistence on clean living and fundamentals can help Billy get his mind right and his daughter back.
One of Southpaw’s more admirable qualities is its willingness to plumb the depths— or perhaps the shallows— of Billy’s soul for drama rather than externalize all his anger in a conventional revenge quest. It’s the most thoughtful, grownup element of the movie. But it also renders the shooting itself strangely superfluous and leaves that plotline as a loose end. Why concoct a scenario as melodramatic as a shooting only to ignore that thread entirely, when all that needed to happen was for Billy to lose Maureen somehow or another?
The answer, of course, is testeria. Billy can’t just suffer a loss, he has to suffer the worst loss, then wallow in the extremities of said suffering to hammer home the point. Then again, you can’t expect too much subtlety in a movie where the main characters’ names, Hope and Wills, literally define them.
Director Antoine Fuqua is no stranger to hypermasculine overstatement. His best film, 2001’s breakout Training Day, was an intense examination of the macho posturing between rival policemen. Fuqua kept up the macho posturing but has mostly jettisoned the examination with the grim, fetishistic violence of later work like Tears of the Sun and Olympus Has Fallen.
Fuqua has a knack for action, but his boxing sequences are atrocious. An opening sequence that pays close attention to the procedural details of wrapping a fighter’s hands and prepping him for the bout promises an attention to detail that collapses with the opening bell. The laughable fight choreography calls to mind the improbable slugfests of the first Rocky, or perhaps Nintendo’s classic game Mike Tyson’s Punch-out. The fighters don’t block, bob, or weave, they stand in the center of the ring and trade direct punches. (Billy, in defiance of biology, only gets stronger when he’s hit in the face.) It’s pure, unintentional comedy later in the film when Wills’s training leads to an epiphany that a fighter should have a defensive strategy as well, a point underscored when one of the boxing commentators/exposition machines exclaims, “Billy Hope has blocked a punch!”
Southpaw can never quite decide what kind of movie it wants to be, whereas its star is fully committed. Gyllenhaal is enamored with physical transformations— from spindly brooding in Donnie Darko to meaty soldier in Jarhead, dehydrated to wan, concentrated menace in Nightcrawler, and here reinflated nearly to bursting. He’s rippled and veined almost to the point of grotesquerie. It’s less interesting than his haunted, more muted turns in Prisoners and Nightcrawler, but he’s thoroughly impressive and fully convincing. He teases out the desperation that feeds the anger, while the rest of the movie struggles to find a layer below the surface. Southpaw owns its rage, but there’s far too much bull.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.