On a whim, I added Southpaw to my Netflix queue a few weeks ago. I wasn’t in a hurry to watch it, but on a recent Friday, I went home sick from a nasty sinus infection and, with nothing better to do and nothing I was more capable of doing, I turned it on. I knew almost nothing about this boxing drama, only that it starred Jake Gyllenhaal, whom I always find watchable. Even if the movie is a turd, he never turns in a boring or uncommitted performance.
“Formulaic” and “clichéd” are, by their nature, words with negative connotations. They’re never applied as a compliment. Seldom is the word “familiar” meant as an accolade, either. Yet all three words apply to Southpaw, and it’s an intensely moving experience. The sport of boxing itself subscribes to a formula, to patterns that are much more set than you might see in mixed martial arts. Jabs, uppercuts, bobbing, feigning, and weaving are familiar moves, but the excitement of the match arises from how the combinations are applied in strategic and unexpected ways. The same can be said for boxing movies, a genre that persists in spite of the waning popularity of the sport it portrays. Southpaw covers very familiar territory, but it’s the approach, the calculated moves and precise timing, that make the film work, and work very well. (Note: Spoilers will follow.)
Gyllenhall plays Billy Hope, the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world. The film opens with Hope listening to gangster rap to energize himself. His crew is in the locker room with him, bantering and trading thug expressions, equally hyped up. His wife gives him a final word of encouragement before he heads into the ring. The first image of him in the fight is startling, his face appearing in close-up, blood, sweat, and spit flowing and flying. He’s already taken a beating, but he likes it. It makes him mad, pumps him up, even though his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) has told him “try not to get hit too much.” In the post-fight press conference, a rival named Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) taunts him from the back of the room to take a chance and “fight a real man.” Billy naturally wants to go toe-to-toe with him, but his manager, Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), wants to line up a few more easy fights for Billy. “If it makes money, it makes sense,” Jordan tells him. Later, in bed, Maureen asks Billy to take some time off, saying he’ll be “punch-drunk” in two years if he doesn’t slow down. He already is, I thought as I watched Gyllenhaal’s portrayal. Billy can barely string a full sentence together. He walks around slump-shouldered, posturing and swaggering, but with a telling lack of self-confidence. He often seems unable to look others in the eye, except when he’s going into beast mode in the ring.
Billy and Maureen attend a charity event to raise money for local orphanages. They are both orphans themselves. The event is a public appearance, a use of Billy’s celebrity to do some good. It’s an innocuous occasion, but Escobar is also in attendance and uses the opportunity to goad Billy further. He says something unforgivable to Billy about Maureen and the two are soon in a gloves-off scrap in the lobby involving both their crews. A gunshot goes off, the fighting abruptly stops, and Maureen is off to the side with her hand over a hole in her abdomen. She dies in Billy’s arms, and his entire world comes to a stop.
What follows is increasingly tragic. Overcome with his grief and unable to cope, Billy becomes consumed with rage, the one thing he knows. He tries to track down and murder the man who likely fired the shot and is fortunately diverted by a sudden stroke of conscience. He destroys his trophy case. He falls into financial ruin. Jordan convinces him to take on another fight, and Billy allows his opponent to beat him to a pulp, his hands down at his sides to receive each blow. The ref stops the fight, and Billy head-butts him, earning himself a one-year suspension. Later, Billy tries to commit suicide. Because of his behavior and ongoing substance abuse, his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) is taken from him and placed in a local children’s home. Billy has lost everything—his career, his family, his future. This all transpires over an agonizing hour of film-time.
According to formula, what follows should be a redemption story, and it is, but Antoine Fuqua’s direction and the performances are so raw and intense, even dangerous, that it feels the developing tragedy could continue right through to the end. I did not feel safe in their hands, which is one reason why the redemption works so well. Also, at this point, I did not like Billy Hope. His tragedy is entirely of his own making. If he had listened to Maureen and turned a deaf ear to Escobar’s taunts, she would still be alive. He’d still have his daughter. His career would be on track. Perhaps he’d have taken some time off, per Maureen’s wishes. Billy has every right to blame himself, and we blame him as well, yet Gyllenhaal so deeply embodies this person and Fuqua keeps his camera so tightly focused on him, that we’re compelled to care what happens to him.
Billy needs employment. He recalls that the manager of a former opponent owns a local gym. Forest Whitaker plays the gym owner, Tick Wills, the stock mentor-type who’s supposed to talk sense into Billy’s raw talent. But Billy’s problem isn’t his discipline in the ring. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal have made very sure we understand that and feel sufficiently pummeled by his personal tragedy. Yes, Billy needs instruction in the ring, and he gets it, but he needs somebody responsible to talk straight and hold him accountable, not just a yes-man from his own crew. Whitaker has a tough mountain to climb with this role, and he captures it from the first moment we see him. Forest Whitaker is a big man, and while he has a very winning smile and that pitiable left eyelid, he can be fearsome and imposing when he wants to be. He’s intimidating here, in a good way. Fuqua often frames him so we know he’s the largest person in the room. Until now, Billy has been dominating the emotions and energy of the movie. It’s been a rough ride. Whitaker now takes over. He has a glass eye (we get the backstory later, but it doesn’t matter) that Fuqua’s camera will focus on, subtly, adding a touch of gray in key moments when Wills is expressing his wisdom.
Tick tells Billy he will not tolerate swearing or drug or alcohol abuse. Be on time, the usual. He’s not at all charmed by Billy’s celebrity or accomplishments. He’s very aware of the tragedy in Billy’s life lately and that Billy is largely responsible for it. Later, he asks Billy to tell him why it all happened. Billy is at a loss. The movie never answers the question for us, either, nor does it need to. The suggestion is that it all sprang from Billy’s past. He grew up an orphan, no parents, no brothers, presumably no mentors. He met Maureen, and that’s all he ever needed. He never had to learn how to do life. The moment he needed somebody to make decisions for him, Maureen was there, as well as Jordan and his crew. The story spends little to no time on Billy’s past, which made his arc resonate more strongly for me. Whatever happened, he never developed. He is dominated by his id in a sport where that could get him somewhere. But it destroyed his life. Tick is not there to teach him how to fight. He’s teaching Billy how to truly think and to be.
Progressively, Billy begins to calm down and to listen where before he could only hear his own voice and the turmoil of his emotions. When he first visits Leila in the children’s home, he can only talk. His dependent personality needs her love and affirmation. He needs her to be the daughter he knows. She’s hurting, however, and she needs to be angry with him and hate him, but he refuses to accept that. As her hatred continues to seethe and express itself, with Tick’s counsel, he forces himself to calmly accept how she feels and let her vent her rage on him.
Billy pours himself into mentoring a young boxer at the gym named Hoppy. You get the sense he’s never had this opportunity before. While this story-line is unfortunately underdeveloped and is rather too obvious as a plot device, it does show the value Billy experiences in giving from what he has. This is yet another calming, maturing influence in his life. What the movie is showing us is a severely beaten, feral animal of a man being molded into the human being he was meant to become. Gyllenhaal’s performance is a wonder. His posture begins to change. His thuggish hunch straightens up. He begins to look people in the eye. The swagger and stammering in his speech begins to disappear. He becomes more articulate and chooses his words carefully. He takes hold of the coaching and the wisdom Tick is giving him and becomes a man his wife wouldn’t even recognize as the Billy she knew. While Whitaker does a masterful job as Tick and the story writes him well, it’s clear that Billy, the author of his own destruction, is now responsible for his own renewal.
Of course Billy gets the chance to fight again. Of course Jordan comes back into the picture to dangle that carrot of materialistic temptation, but the film is so focused on what is really happening to Billy that I didn’t care that this was overly familiar territory. As she watched with me, Diana hissed at Jordan as the “bad guy,” but I was too keyed in to how Billy would respond that I cared little who the villain was or that there even was a villain.
Billy reminds me so much of my struggle. I’ve never lacked for mentors. I have wonderful parents and had a very good upbringing. I’ve also never been as controlled by my rage and self-consciousness as Billy is, but nevertheless, for who knows what reason, I’ve struggled to develop, much as he has. I think every adult can identify with the struggle, some more than others; likewise, whether this story resonates with you will depend on how much you buy into it. Certain threads may resolve themselves too easily or efficiently. Billy’s personal victories may be too handily won. I didn’t mind. For me, this is a fable, and fables need to have efficient resolutions. They need to represent what we ultimately aim for. Billy Hope stands in for every adult who is experiencing growing pains after an unfairly arrested development. The formula demands he face certain challenges in the final act: he must reconcile with his daughter and win her back, the right way, through the courts; he must face his final opponent, and that final opponent must be Escobar, the man he once held responsible for his wife’s death. He must also determine how he will face that opponent—will this be for revenge or is this something he must do to complete his grieving process and close this chapter in his life? I love the way Fuqua, Gyllenhaal, and Whitaker handle these scenes. We see an obligatory training montage, but not with monster rock and power ballads or even the gangster rap that opened the picture. Instead, it’s scored with light, soothing, meditative piano and violins from James Horner in one of his last films, indicating Billy’s spiritual progression. In Billy’s first fight under Wills, a charity event, Billy strategically jabs away at his opponent as Wills has taught him, patiently chipping away at his opponent’s stamina, whereas in previous bouts Billy would let his opponents pummel him mercilessly, then channel his rage and go in for the kill. Fuqua films these light jabs with the same dramatic slow-mo and framing as the more violent early fights, drawing an important parallel—these jabs represent a deep transformation of Billy’s character and the way he approaches life. The path toward true victory demands a patient and considered approach. Later, he has an important conversation with Leila about his upcoming fight with Escobar, and again, the screenplay, the performances, and the direction hit all the right notes.
I love this movie because of what it sets out to accomplish. Whether or not it does so perfectly, I really can’t judge. I instinctively responded to it and was deeply moved in both mind and soul. It became something much greater than it had initially appeared, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again as the years go by, much like I revisit films like Rocky and The Shawshank Redemption. They touch me in spiritual ways and convey the sense of triumph for which I continually strive.