It’s hard to imagine that Jake Gyllenhaal could ever play a boxer, although, when you see him standing in the ring in those shiny black shorts and a trickle of blood hanging out of a his mouth, dripping onto his taut stomach, it’s not so difficult to believe. If you’re going to the movies this weekend, you could probably do a lot worse than Southpaw, a family drama about a light-heavyweight champion named Billy Hope whose life and career are reduced to rubble after a series of escalating financial problems and personal tragedies. (Warning: Spoilers ahead in the rest of this paragraph; skip to the next one to avoid.) His wife, Maureen, played by the wonderful, lovely, strong Rachel McAdams (who I believe makes any movie better) is shot and killed at a charity event after a fight between Billy and another fighter turns violent. It’s pretty obvious from the start that Maureen is the glue that holds Billy Hope together. Without her, Billy is virtually alone. He self-destructs, losing his house, his support, and his daughter, who’s taken into the hands of child services.
Southpaw is in a lot of ways a run-of-the-mill boxing drama, bolstered by the performances of its stars. I’m a big fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, who gave one of last year’s most memorable performances in the creepy thriller Nightcrawler. Here, Gyllenhaal transforms himself into a prizefighter, defying the naysayer within all of us that might think of him still as the adorably scrawny, thoughtful teenager in Donnie Darko, or the boy scout cartoonist Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. What’s frustrating—for me at least—is that so many actors seem intent on proving themselves in this genre, as though, because of Robert De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull, the wrestling genre is a gauntlet through which all serious male performers must pass.
I have no idea if Gyllenhaal is trying to cement his reputation as a serious actor with a movie like Southpaw. More likely he’s a serious actor who wants to challenge himself. And Southpaw gives him plenty of opportunities to hit all the emotional beats that a serious actor would kill for. He gets to be on top, a superstar in the boxing world; he gets to (SPOILER) have Rachel McAdams die in his arms; he gets to fall, like a mighty emperor suddenly conquered, reduced to rubble and abandoned by everyone who worshiped him only moments prior. He gets to rise up and conquer his demons. He gets redemption. In short, Southpaw is ready-made for those who want all of the drama of a boxing movie. There’s just not much novelty in it, and for someone who hates watching boxing of any kind, it was a bit of a grind. I did feel increasingly more invested as the move wore on, admittedly.
But as a drama, Southpaw is often sloppy. It relies on the easy tears of lost loves and dramatic disappointments, and the equally simple-minded “I’m going to win this one for my daughter” and “family is everything” messages that Hollywood loves to drape around its movies, like the tin-foil candy wrappers that are engraved with syruppy feel-good adages, like "love is what really matters."
What is perhaps most eye-opening—and tragic—is the truth that Southpaw exposes: These boxers are alone. These are guys who have likely not had the advantage of an education. They have no other career options to fall back on, and they have no real support system in place. Billy’s wife Maureen was the exception. Most of these men are being exploited by their coterie of ass-kissing paid trainers and legal assistants and security staff. Once the fame and the money go, they “disappear like cock roaches,” as Maureen so aptly puts it in the film. I think this is the one thing which makes Southpaw particularly relevant and even important as a contribution to movies. And maybe this truth has been evident all along and I just haven’t noticed it.
Forrest Whitaker co-stars as the wise trainer who takes in the broken and defeated Billy in the second half of the movie and then helps him rise again. Oona Laurence gives a heartfelt and strong performance as Billy’s daughter, Leila. With Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, 50 Cent, Miguel Gomez, and Beau Knapp. Directed by Antoine Fuqua.