The Fighter doesn’t just take place in Lowell, Massachusetts; it reeks with the atmosphere of this working-class New England town, making vivid use of its look, feel, and sounds. Director David O. Russell clearly immersed himself in the community and worked overtime to capture its flavor, going so far as to cast some local non-actors (notably, police officer and fight trainer Mickey O’Keefe as himself). What makes the movie work as well as it does is that Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and especially Melissa Leo blend seamlessly into this setting alongside the real-life residents.
Wahlberg, who also produced the film, is completely credible as a small-time boxer whose fate is in the hands of—
—his large, dysfunctional family. Bale completely disappears into the role of Wahlberg’s older stepbrother who is still living off his glory days in the ring and now functions as the younger sibling’s trainer, when he isn’t busy smoking crack. In many ways the most astonishing performance is given by Leo, who is so physically unrecognizable as Wahlberg’s feisty, arrogant mother—who acts as his manager and thinks she knows it all—that if you didn’t see her name in the credits you’d think the director cast yet another local.
With so many fine performances and a dynamic, real-life story to tell, The Fighter should have been an even better movie than it is. (The screenplay is written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, from a story by Tamasy, Johnson and Keith Dorrington.) It takes a lot of time to unfold, and loses some of its punch (pun intended) in the final act, where, it must be said, forgiveness and resolution command less attention than the sparks that ignite the drama in its earlier stages. Still, these performances demand to be seen, and Russell’s extraordinary depiction of a unique family, in a distinctive community, will stay with me for a long time to come.