The Eklund clan, stars of The Fighter, are not necessarily an introspective bunch. Matriarch Alice Eklund (Melissa Leo) hasn’t absorbed the fact that her beloved son Dicky (Christian Bale) is a crack addict. And Dicky hasn’t thought about how he will look when an HBO documentary about crack addiction he stars in finally airs. With hair-trigger tempers, this Lowell, Mass., family acts instead of thinks. But their id-driven lives are our entertainment gain: Based on a true story, The Fighter runneth over with raw energy, crazy action, and the highly seductive, brainless gallop of people dashing toward the brick wall of their own vanities and fears. It couldn’t be more fun.
Dicky and Alice act as trainer and manager (respectively) to Dicky’s half-brother and Alice’s son, the promising young fighter Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). The pair have hitched their stars to Micky’s meal-ticket boxing career and the attendant tawdry glamour that entails: cheap motel rooms, Atlantic City bouts, stretch limos — all of which director David O. Russell renders in the harsh, grubby light of day (beautifully lensed by Let the Right One In‘s Swiss cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema). Hoytema’s work reveals the layer of grime on the margins of the excitement.
Russell portrays the Eklund-Ward family like Scorsese loud-mouthed gangsters; they’re a claustrophobic den of thieves not to be trifled with or double-crossed. Personally, I could watch three more movies about this crazed, mercurial clan. But Russell’s debt to Scorsese doesn’t end there. It hangs over much of The Fighter, from the rousing pop music soundtrack (a blend of the lowbrow hair band musical tastes of Lowell including Whitesnake and Aerosmith and Russell’s own hipster playlist) to the grubby authenticity he brings to the wasted, peeling desolation of Lowell. It’s a sad, crumbling blue-collar town that Dicky and Micky adore as much as their blowzy, hell-cat mama Alice, the ultimate castrating mother whose two short and tubby husbands — one ex and one current — quake with fear at Alice’s approach and follow silently in her foamy wake.
The Fighter boasts an outlandishly real and fleshed-out cast as honest and gritty as the backwoods meth-cookers of this year’s Winter’s Bone. The casting for The Fighter is truly inspired. With its red-faced, chubby, exhausted-looking townsfolk so eerily effective, it’s hard to imagine anyone is acting. Bale’s emaciated, squirrely crackhead is the showier, high-profile role in the film, but even the tangential characters look plucked from the parking lot of any small-town fast food joint. Alice is the Gorgon lord and master of Dicky and Micky’s seven itchin’-for-a-fight sisters — a cyclone of stone-washed denim and teased-to-high-heaven hair — who travel en masse like Keystone Kops or clowns pouring out of a funny car. Lowbrow gargoyles perched en masse in the family living room, the pack of seven sisters drink beer and sulk as Micky introduces them to his new girlfriend Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams). Like Snow White’s dwarves, they all have nicknames—Tar, Pork, Red Dog, Beaver. But those are for “family only,” as they are quick to remind interloper Charlene, the saucy bartender who steals Micky’s heart and means to separate him from his blood-sucking clan.
As Boogie Nights proved, no one does good-natured puppy dog vulnerability and working-class sex appeal like Mark Wahlberg. Put a dress and a drug problem on him and he’d be Marilyn Monroe. Wahlberg offers the bedrock performance next to Bale’s manic, brilliant one as a former boxer whose claim to fame is having knocked out Sugar Ray, but who has since squandered that notoriety making out with Cambodian hookers and sucking crack from a soda bottle. Bale has the hypnotic energy of the damned, his life clearly circling the drain. Dicky is one of life’s fuck-ups graced with a bountiful charisma that keeps people engaged and attached to him.
Dicky is the literal addict in The Fighter, leaping out of crack house windows to avoid Alice and practicing his sizable personal magnetism even on his prison comrades. But Micky is the figurative addict, who can’t break the spell of his controlling family or the clutches of his tag-teaming, devouring mother and brother.