To understand the queasiness at the heart of Bleed for This, it’s worth starting with its final scene. Like Creed, Ben Younger’s film ends not with the usual rah-rah triumph (that occurs one scene earlier), but with a quieter, more reflective epilogue. In this case, it’s an interview that middleweight boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) gives to a reporter in which he’s asked about the biggest lie he was told throughout his astonishing recovery process after a debilitating car accident. His response: “It’s not that simple,” referring to how everyone—doctors, his family, and his alcoholic coach, Kevin (Aaron Eckhart)—told him his potentially paralyzing injuries were impossible to recover from. When asked to elaborate, he continues, “Actually, it is that simple.”
Younger stages this would-be epiphany with nary a hint of ambiguity—certainly no acknowledgment that, unlike other working-class people like Pazienza, the boxer was privileged enough to have a network of people willing to support him financially and emotionally, thus making it easy for him to approach his rehabilitation from his broken neck in such a totally uncomplicated way. Whether one concludes that Younger himself actually believes in the simplistic worldview Pazienza articulates in that last scene depends on what you believe his attitude toward the man himself is—specifically, the competitive machismo he exhibits throughout the film.
Machismo also played a major role in Younger’s 2000 debut, Boiler Room, a financial drama that presented an almost all-male environment in which small-time investment brokers pushed worthless stocks onto people seemingly just for the pleasure of the kill. The sense of macho competition among the members of its fictional J.T. Marlin investment firm finds echoes in the boxing world the filmmaker depicts in Bleed for This—not just in the physical punches Pazienza absorbs in the ring, but in his overtly cocky persona toward competitors and his penchant for gambling and objectifying women. An early image of Pazienza throwing poker chips onto a groupie’s bare breasts offers an appropriate sum-up of his life before the car accident that fuels the comeback narrative that drives the rest of the film.
Much of the film’s opening half-hour is devoted to meticulously detailing Pazienza’s macho side, an emphasis on character that throws a marginally subversive light onto the sports-movie conventions that the film fully embraces. Pazienza’s desire to defy the odds after his car accident leaves him in jeopardy of never walking again, much less fight, is depicted as part and parcel of his overriding need to win at all costs. He’s even willing to endure agonizing pain in order to get back into the ring, to the point that he chooses to forgo anesthetics when it’s time for him to the take out the screws driven into his forehead that keeps his halo—the metal brace that holds his neck and spine in place after surgery—in place. In scenes like this, Younger’s filmmaking exudes a kind of anthropological fascination (his use of handheld camera gives the film a sharply naturalistic feel), thus allowing us to determine for ourselves whether to find his masochistic tendencies heroic or merely foolish.
The only thing that’s made unmistakably clear about Pazienza in Bleed for This is that, for him, his life will have no meaning if boxing isn’t a central part of it. In some ways, it’s fitting that Martin Scorsese is one of the film’s executive producers; perhaps he was attracted to the fact that Pazienza is about as single-minded in his dedication to fighting, and about as macho outside of it, as Jake LaMotta was in Raging Bull. But if Scorsese refused to let LaMotta off the hook for his brutishness off the ring, Younger’s perspective on Pazienza is ultimately much less critical: Any initial gestures toward acknowledging the boxer’s macho egotism are eventually downplayed as the film becomes just another formulaic triumph-over-adversity saga. What makes Bleed for This’s last interview scene so unsettling is that Younger dares to present Pazienza’s me-versus-them perspective as profound worldly wisdom, making the film as dangerously naïve as it is tiresomely predictable.