Boxing’s relevance as a subject for visceral drama and allegory in cinema lasted all of four years, from Sylvester Stallone using the sport as a metaphor for personal and national redemption to Martin Scorsese crafting a two-hour epic to mock the very idea of nobility in such a savage activity. The limited thematic range the topic offers to filmmakers is evident in Southpaw, wherein any variations on the theme set down by Rocky are primarily graphic. This is a film of swollen eyes, lumpy bodies, creaking joints, and bloody mouths, all lingered on with a detail that verges on the perversely affectionate, each battle scar a testament to a vaguely but nonetheless forcefully defined notion of masculinity.
The heightened depictions of violence inform the bullish nature of the plot itself, which piles miseries on light heavyweight champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) with Job-like swiftness and intensity. Just as everything looks great for Billy, he loses his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), in an explosive altercation with a rival boxer (Miguel Gomez) and his posse. By the end of the 30-minute mark, he also loses his career, his palatial home, even custody of his young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Nominally, this forces Billy to examine his life, but the only path the film positions for his atonement is the one that gets him back into the ring to prove his manhood. Intemperate violence got him into this mess, the film suggests, and it can damn well get him out of it.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy with all the believable tics of a veteran boxer. Raised by the system, Billy lacks formal education and complicates that with more than a decade’s worth of head injuries, resulting in self-conscious mumbles in polite conversation or speeches and mumbled half-thoughts in private. The actor’s willingness to take actual punches in lieu of a stunt double smacks of FYC grandstanding, but it pays off in the authentic reactions of mixed agony and glee when fighters land hits on Billy, who uses bouts as a means of inviting self-martyring punishment. Gyllenhaal, wincing and grunting with each real punch to the stomach and body, doesn’t have to fake the strained satisfaction on his face when Billy goads an opponent into pummeling him in the hopes of beating out his demons.
Billy’s rampaging male angst and insecurity nonetheless lock Gyllenhaal into a narrow type, and he’s not alone among the cast. Curtis Jackson exudes pure evil as a fight promoter always shoving offers and contracts under Billy’s nose at moments of emotional weakness, while Forest Whitaker counters that greed with the weary but honest wisdom of a small-time gym owner named Tick, who trains disadvantaged and neglected kids. Screenwriter Kurt Sutter peppers in tedious expository nuggets to ensure the characters are defined more simplistically, be it Billy’s orphan status or Tick’s own backstory. The only character with any sense of variation is Leila, though her ostensible complexity is a function of plot convenience, which demands either resentment or affection depending on the scene. Even this child believes her daddy’s only true salvation lies in his fighting prowess, and only forgives him when he pledges to get back to in the ring.
Apart from Gyllenhaal’s committed performance, the only real highlight of the film is Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, shot with harsh, gravelly palettes that lend Billy’s prematurely aged and arthritic body the countenance of a gargoyle. Fiore and director Antoine Fuqua get their best shots in low-light conditions, especially the deep shadows that bathe Tick’s gym when Billy trains in the wee hours of the morning. The pale light drains Gyllenhaal’s flesh tones even further, and Whitaker is placed in obliterating shadows that leave only Tick’s milky, dead eye illuminated. Their training may be the precursor to the redemptive main event, but it’s this expressionistic illustration of a tired man teaching a broken one, the one-eyed man leading the blind, that best articulates an incremental, dedicated approach to self-improvement over the instant validation of victory in the ring.