“You’re gonna be punch-drunk in two years if you keep this up,” warns Maureen Hope (Rachel McAdams), wife to boxer and current reigning Junior Middleweight Boxing champ, Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal). And she’s right.
In the new, riveting drama from director Antoine Fuqua, Southpaw, Billy appears to have just about everything. He’s a guy, dragged up through the system with little education since childhood, who, against all odds, has made it. He’s a boxing champ and he’s really good. But he’s paying a price; the beatings are taking their toll. When Billy speaks it’s more of a mumble, that’s if he can speak at all, and if it’s a long sentence, it comes with expletives; he knows no other way of expression. He uses swear words in lieu of real ones. He doesn’t know any better.
When we first meet Billy, he’s in the ring and he’s an animal. His style is full on attack. And he wins. Again. But there’s always someone waiting in the wings for their chance to knock the champ down, and here it’s up and coming boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). “I just wanna know why you don’t give me my shot,” Escobar publicly declares, but Billy isn’t biting. “You ain’t no champ,” Billy responds. “You’re all show, you know that.”
But tragedy is ready to strike and it’s truly senseless, beginning with gun shots in a public place, resulting in a death while friends and associates scatter like roaches. In an instant, Billy’s life is turned around and he loses all, including his palatial home, his manager, his career, and worst of all, his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). She becomes the care of family services. Like Billy, she’s now a part of the system. His authority as a parent, like his title, is taken.
Before the film is over, Billy will have hit rock bottom, his spirit broken to the point where there’s simply nothing left. But this is still a boxing movie and there’s a grudge to settle, and in order to settle it, Billy needs to not only get back on his feet, but once he’s standing, change. Change his attitude, change his demeanor, change his style. With the initial, reluctant help of low-rent boxing gym owner Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), who insists he doesn’t train professionals, Billy begins the long road back. After all, with everything gone, Billy could hardly now be called a professional.
Like Billy’s approach to fighting, Gyllenhaal commits to the character full on. It’s an attack. In several interviews, the actor has stated that before filming he didn’t know how to box, and as far as the bodybuilding workouts that achieved the convincing look of a life long, experienced fighter go, they stopped the moment filming stopped. Perhaps some would think that by achieving the look, the performance is already covered, but that’s not the case. The physical appearance is merely the actor’s decoration, his costume. During the courtroom scene where the judge separates an out-for-the-count Billy from his daughter, the moment is genuinely upsetting. You can see that Billy just doesn’t understand what’s happening and why, and it’s Gyllenhaal’s total conviction as an actor that makes the scene work as well as it does. When his daughter cries and is lead away, she can’t understand why because she’s a child. But Billy is an adult, yet his level of understanding is seemingly no higher than his daughter’s. It’s heartbreaking. Like the actor’s physicality, his performance is remarkable.
So, too, is Oona Laurence. Broadway audiences will know the young performer from Matilda: The Musical, having originated the on-stage role with three other performers. Here she’s a bespectacled young girl with a healthy humor and a love for both her mom and dad, not to mention the occasional moment of wisdom for one so young. When her father insists she shouldn’t watch him box on TV, she replies, “I see stuff like that on TV all the time. I watch ‘The Walking Dead.’” During the big battle that concludes the film, the daughter gets her wish of watching her father fight. Her emotions throughout run the gamut. She’s a genuine joy to watch.
As for the boxing, director Fuqua puts us right in the ring, not unlike Scorsese did with The Raging Bull where the impact of being hit is felt and becomes personal. But the comparisons stop there. When Billy returns to the ring for that climactic fight, his style is different. The opening shot of Billy at the beginning of the film shows a man whose inner rage is fully exposed as he goes in for the attack. Things are now different, and so is his approach to boxing. Fuqua, himself a boxer, knows how to put his audience in the ring with his characters.
Perhaps unintentionally, by putting us right there, within those ropes, feeling every punch the fighters throw at each other, experiencing cinematically each blow to the face, the film seems to be hammering home the question, why. Why pummel each other to such a barbaric degree in the name of sport when you truly are stepping closer to having the sense literally knocked out of you? As Billy’s wife tells the boxer, he really is a year or two from becoming punch drunk. Success in sport such as this is temporary. Success in life may eventually be less so. Dementia Pugilistica, or simply DP, is a terrible price to pay for a sporting career, and it’s obvious Billy is already on the way. That may not be the film’s intention, but many will and should be asking that question, all the same.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 123 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)