Southpaw is not a film about sports and personal glory through sporting achievement. Southpaw is about how we engage with the complicated sport of life. It is about the techniques we deploy to achieve victory and avoid being knocked on our asses, and the blind spots that keep us thinking those techniques work even when they threaten to destroy everything. It concerns itself not with the aforementioned personal glory in beating the snot out of someone, but with issues relating to grief and emotional intelligence. I don’t remember the last time I saw so many men crying in one film (and often not about themselves!). While the generic structure of a sports film still holds it together, leading many to describe it as hackneyed, there are many ways in which it undermines traditional macho ideological tropes and refutes the hollow victories of the genre.
Southpaw is a fascinating and intensely emotional collaboration between director Antione Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen), screenwriter Kurt Sutter (creator of The Shield & Sons Of Anarchy), and actor Jake Gyllenhaal, and of those three it was Gyllenhaal who had me interested in the film. He is one of the greatest contemporary actors, not only for his skills as a performer, but also for his choice in films. Within the Hollywood system there is perhaps no other actor who has stayed as consistently on theme. It is not typecasting in a certain role or genre, as so many other promising actors have fallen into. His choice in films reflects a concern, a fear, and an anger directed towards social nightmares. While the degree to which his films have successfully engaged their respective social nightmares is debatable, it is undeniable that a desire to engage them is demonstrated throughout. Even his token rom-com from 2010, Love & Other Drugs, concerned itself with the dangerous behemoth that is the American pharmaceutical industry, while more recently he has tackled fears and horrors that bubble up and explode from our media culture (Nightcrawler), the military industrial complex (Source Code, Jarhead, Rendition), and social structures of family and community (Enemy, Prisoners). There’s probably even an argument for Prince of Persia fitting into this theme, though that would involve me having to either remember or rewatch that film.
Gyllenhaal here plays Billy “The Great” Hope, a near-mythical hero, risen from the lows of a New York orphanage to scale the heights of boxing on a 43-0 winning streak. He has a perfect (for him) wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), another orphan who has been with him through the highs and lows since they were twelve. They have a wonderful daughter, the mansion, the friendship group, the everything they could ever need. But there are shadows, shadows that Maureen does everything she can to keep at bay and steer clear of. The statement “She is his Rock” doesn’t even begin to describe how incredible she is and how much emotional labour she puts in to keep him afloat. We don’t realise this at first, or if we do we don’t consider that the film will care about this in anything but a superficial way. But then it is gone, Maureen dead in a tragic act of violence, and the downward spiral begins in earnest.
I say ‘in earnest’ because Billy has always been killing himself. His technique in the ring and in life is to take the abuse, to be a bloody martyr building up pressure until the force of his own explosion carries him across the finish line. Not healthy. So many films have followed this narrative arc, with the women as a sacrifice to the male ego, written in as an excuse for them to go crazy, get revenge, or be a better person. Some of this is in Southpaw, but the way it utilises it, and the intentions it has in deploying this ‘hackneyed’ plot are admirable and effectively carried out. Her death is the death of a fantasy, one that pretends things are okay & that we don’t have to change because the illusion of a transitory happiness allows them to bury their heads in the sand. It is also interesting that at no point does the film become about who specifically causes her death. This a film that understands that everyone is to blame, and it refuses to disappear down the spiral of violence.
Southpaw got my attention because it does not wallow in his misery and self-destruction. There is no montage of drug, alcohol, or sex abuse. When others ask Billy if he is drunk or high and he deflects the question, it isn’t only about his personal shame but also a statement from the filmmakers that the particulars of his self-destruction are not what we should be concentrating on. It doesn’t matter what someone’s poison is, what matters is the cause and the effect. This is almost unheard of in dominant American culture, just look at the propaganda surrounding the ‘war on drugs’. By not going there, it also completely denies glorification of abuses. There are no wild parties or binges that are ‘bad’ but shown to be so much fun. There is just a hole, an emptiness in his heart and soul into which everything disappears and nothing comes out of it except death. This is powerful and important.
The first stage of Billy putting it all back together is realising how important Maureen’s contribution to his being was. This is not achieved through further illusion or displacement. Billy freezes without her, saying over and over at various points to everyone who will listen “She made all the decisions”. It doesn’t matter that he is possibly the greatest boxer who ever existed, that he is an apex macho Great White American Dream, she was more of his being than he has ever become for himself. Not in a fairytale, romantic way, but in a very real way that results in him being unable to care for himself or his daughter. In a way, she was just as bad for him as everything else because she helped shape the illusion that everything was okay. Now, please take a moment to read this article on ‘emotional labour’.
I won’t apologise for the extracurricular reading, if you want to understand the core of this film then you need to understand emotional labour. Billy does not carry his share of the emotional weight, and it leads to disaster.
There is a lot of shorthand in this film. It is not a top to bottom character study. There are a lot of generic elements that we have seen over and over again. However, that is part of the point. This is more fable than it is true-to-life doco-drama. If we learn nothing from history then we are destined to repeat it. The unimaginable plethora of angry males in the prison system who have made the same dumb mistakes over and over again is real. A great many of those people have become their own clichéd genre film. Southpaw presents the same stupid mistakes that people commit when they ignore the lessons and advice of others and pretend it will be different for them. Southpaw works to reclaim meaning from the ideologically unsound hyper-masculine narratives that almost completely dominate the fields of sports and revenge films. Boxing is utilised as a beautifully suited metaphor, its pros and cons presented clearly, and as a mirror for the way the techniques of male behaviour and emotions can become horrific. Sutter’s screenplay wants the character, and, by extension the masculine world, to let go of the destructive tropes of masculinity and find balance. Even the title suggests this, as the left side is represented as being feminine in many cultures.
Where Southpaw elevates itself above all the clichés is by presenting a lead character who is willing to start making the right decisions, who is willing to earn them, and who is willing to learn from the mistakes of the past. The particular way that Sutter has constructed this narrative makes it different, shifting the focus and earning redemption the hard way. The final fight is not represented as something good, but rather that it has to be faced and transcended. The fight is not only a means to an end, it is also a minefield that could easily destroy everything that Billy has done to repair his world. It is a thrilling and powerful fight that foregrounds dangerous emotional behaviour. I can’t think of too many American films that are willing to engage with such themes, and unironically hope that we can make right the choices.
Southpaw is about realising how the people who make us strong can also make us weak. It is about being able to stand on your own two feet, but also about understanding the importance of communities and healthy networks. The path to victory is truly tested here, because winning the match good still be a defeat. Billy has an even harder outcome to achieve: to return to a bad place and make good choices, to be confronted with violence and bad behaviours and turn the other cheek, to be better than the person who helped destroy everything. These are important perspectives to have represented on-screen. A more in-depth analysis could find the usual problematic elements that a white male-centric Hollywood film carries with it like some kind of genetic disease. However, Southpaw excels at breaking free from the constraints of cliché and ideological turpitude to tell an important story about making the right decisions. With Gyllenhaal bringing such an incredible emotional weight, the film easily lands its punches, being a thrilling, engaging, emotional text.
By Ben Buckingham
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer(s): Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Naomie Harris
Runtime: 124 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: August 20 2015