Good news: The Fighter is mistitled. It’s not about another raging bull. It’s about a whole raging family: bulls, cows, even raging heifers. It opens in 1993 in the blue-collar section of Lowell, Massachusetts, where the punching doesn’t stop at the ropes and the air is alive with epithets: Ya junkbag, ya skank, ya cheap bastahd. At last, the famously pugilistic filmmaker David O. Russell (George Clooney in a Playboy interview: “He turned on me and said … ‘You want to hit me? You want to hit me? Come on, pussy, hit me.’ I’m looking at him like he’s out of his mind. Then he started banging me on the head with his head”) has found a set of characters more quarrelsome than he is: two half-brothers, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale); Micky’s bartending squeeze, Charlene (Amy Adams); their boozy bottle-blonde mom, Alice (Melissa Leo); and their fearsome armada of big-haired sisters. Ironically, the title character, Wahlberg’s Micky, is the movie’s peacemaker. He just wants everyone to get along so he can pummel people outside the family to a pulp.
The Fighter takes a while to find its footing. It opens in a faux-documentary style, with the emphasis on faux: Once again, Massachusetts accents prove to be the kryptonite of superstars. (Even Wahlberg can’t nail the tricky Lowell dialect.) Bale’s Dicky, once a boxer and the “pride of Lowell,” is now the subject of an HBO whatever-happened-to doc he thinks is meant to herald his comeback. But it’s actually about how he became a crackhead—which is bad for Dicky but good for Bale, who gets a chance to do one of those overcommitted-Method-actor transformations, which leaves him with bones popping out of his sallow flesh. He’s terrific, but, you know, ick. It’s the faded junior welterweight Micky, now working in construction, who decides to give the ring one more shot and who ends up getting the boost from HBO. In this he is assisted—and prodded, and sometimes browbeaten—by his new girlfriend.
It falls to Charlene to pry Micky loose from his druggie brother and loudmouthed mom, and Amy Adams—in the past such an airy-fairy and ethereal little nun—has accomplished her own transformation. She has gained weight: not much but enough to give her a cute tum and make her arms look like they’re used to heaving multiple pitchers of lager. And with her eyes like blue steel and swarm of red hair, it doesn’t take much to get her Irish up. The Fighter really takes off when her Charlene goes up against Mama Alice, who calls her, mystifyingly, “an MTV girl” but is finally forced to respect her titanic will. You get the feeling that Leo, a full-throttle scenery chewer, was forced to respect Adams, too: It’s mano-a-mano in that nutty Best Supporting Actress category.
Director Russell reportedly signed on late in the game, when Darren Aronofsky dropped out to punish ballerinas instead of boxers, and his filmmaking is loose and spontaneous. The themes don’t snap into focus—I’d have liked a nod to the irony that HBO sells Dicky’s downfall as avidly as Micky’s rise—but the movie has so much texture that once it gets you, you’re good and got. The real Micky Ward was known for taking loads of punishment, and the fighting is brutal. But Russell doesn’t stylize the bouts or go for Raging Bull–style slo-mo crucifixion poetry. You’re always aware of the people outside the ropes screaming at Micky, who seems to feed on all that family drama, to suck it in the way Popeye sucked in spinach. The Fighter suggests that a seedy, nasty milieu can knock you down but also pick you up and shove you back in the ring to keep punching. It’s a rousing picture.
What moved Joel and Ethan Coen to adapt Charles Portis’s 1968 novel True Grit for the screen anew, 40-plus years after John Wayne made the one-eyed Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn his own? My guess is that they were turned on by Portis’s voice, his mixture of quasi-biblical dialect and morbidly funny modern fatalism. The novel is structured like an old-fashioned revenge saga, except the villain is a hapless cretin and the hero a mean drunk who rode with the Confederate Captain Quantrill during the infamous Lawrence, Kansas, massacre of 1863. Director Henry Hathaway was too old-school to underline the sick jokes, and Wayne had a mythical persona to uphold. The Coens signal their intentions by replacing the Duke with the Dude (Jeff Bridges) and introducing him—or rather, his voice—from inside an outhouse. Behind the walls he sits, churlishly refusing to engage with Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old who seeks a man with “true grit” to help her capture her father’s killer. At that point, all we can tell is that Cogburn has true shit.