Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) is becoming one of my favorite actors, though I’ll admit that I may have been slow to recognize his abilities. I’d always thought he turned in good performances, but it wasn’t until last year’s Nightcrawler that I finally realized how talented he is. When I think about his career thus far, I’m most impressed by his versatility. From Donnie Darko to Brokeback Mountain to Jarhead– he transforms himself completely on screen. In Antoine Fuqua’s latest offering Southpaw, Gyllenhaal is masterful as Billy Hope, a boxer whose life unravels in the wake of tragedy.
Billy Hope embodies the rags to riches bootstrapping ethos of many professional athletes. He overcame a rough childhood in foster care, rising to the pinnacle of his sport as an undefeated world champion. He remains loyal to his childhood friends and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams, Aloha), who was also raised in the system. They live in a huge mansion with their ten-year-old daughter Leila, enjoying all the trappings of Billy’s success while remaining true to their humble beginnings.
Trash-talk and boxing go hand in hand, so initially Billy is dismissive when challenged by upstart Miguel “Magic” Escobar, who wants a shot at the title. Billy tries to laugh off Escobar’s assertion that he’s “never been hit by a real man,” but his newfound nemesis is relentless in his provocation. After a particularly nasty insult aimed at Maureen, a brawl between the fighters and their respective camps ensues. Shots ring out in the fracas, and Maureen is fatally wounded. In the aftermath of this devastating tragedy, Billy completely unravels. Consumed by grief, he is incapable of being the support system Leila so desperately needs after the loss of her mother. When she is taken into child protective services, Billy has no one to blame but himself. Will he regain custody? Does he have any hope of resurrecting his career?
Southpaw’s strength literally and figuratively lies with Gyllenhaal. From the physical transformation he endured to mirror a prizefighter to the intonation and dialect he employed in his dialogue delivery – he completely immersed himself in the role. Forest Whitaker (Out of the Furnace) was also reliably effective in his supporting role as a trainer who helps Billy right the ship. However, although I enjoyed Southpaw, I didn’t absolutely love it. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but after mulling it over for a few days; I think the movie was almost too straightforward. Writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) needn’t have overcomplicated the story, but its resolution was a bit too tidy. Billy’s entire world went to shit. His wife, child, home, and livelihood were all ripped from him. The manner in which these conflicts were resolved was too streamlined. There were no plot twists, nothing unexpected.
I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know if you’ve seen the trailer. Gyllenhaal’s commitment to the role was evidenced by his physical transformation, and the boxing scenes were frighteningly realistic. But how are we supposed to believe that a fighter who had been defeated so thoroughly could bounce back so quickly? A good movie, but not a great one. Grade: B+