Southpaw is a Heartbreaking Character Study about Parenting, and Loss, plus Boxing
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence
Running time 123 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, and some violence
Southpaw is an emotionally brutal, character driven film filled with compelling and powerful performances that culminate in a very moving story. The story as a whole would not be half as affective if not for the performances delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal and Oona Laurence, for Gyllenhaal this is another outstanding role, but for newcomer Oona Laurence it should be a career launching performance. The fact that this movie is about a boxer is almost a side note to the story, he could have easily had any job and the film would have been almost the same, the boxing just adds a layer of drama and flavor to the story. Character driven films can be hit and miss, if the actors are not up to the task or the narrative is not a well-constructed vehicle for those actors. The characters here are real, flawed, and relatable, and the sports action is engaging, if you enjoy that kind of thing. Not being a fan of boxing myself, I found those sequences dry, but very well filmed, if you are a fan, you will love those sequences, there is plenty of punching.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an undefeated light heavyweight world champion, boxer who fought his way up from a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), urges him to retire while he still has his health, to spend time with their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). At a charity event, after being taunted into fight by a rival boxer, Maureen is accidentally shot and killed during the fight. Billy spirals into a self-destructive mess, losing his title, his home and his daughter. After hitting bottom, Billy seeks the help of Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker), who trains young boxers at an inner-city gym. Tick agrees to take on Billy and gives him a job as a janitor, cleaning up the gym every night after training. Slowly the two men learn to trust each other, and Billy begins a journey toward accepting his wife’s death, reuniting and repairing the relationship with his daughter and returning ring.
A quick notes about this film, Southpaw and the upcoming Magnificent Seven are the last works by composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash earlier this year, shortly after finishing this recording. Southpaw was dedicated to his memory; this lent a somewhat startling sense of poignancy to the experience of watching husband, and a daughter grieve. It is something that really struck me, and broke the wall between the fiction and reality. I don’t want to bring anyone down, it actually helped me digest the film, and to understand the grieving process I just watched play out. One other note, and a much happier one, the young actress Oona Laurence was incredibly impressive in a difficult role for any actor, let alone one as young as her. She was not only enjoyable to watch, but she was able to convincingly drift through a very complex set of emotions very quickly. This film would be worth watching for her performance alone, fortunately, hers is not the only fantastic part this film, making this a very worthwhile experience.