Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: The Ultimate Gutpunch in The Fighter

In “Little Women”, Louisa May Alcott has one of my favorite lines in literature: “Being good would be easy if we could do it all at once.”

Dicky in The Fighter wants to become a good person, and he “turns a new leaf” almost every day of his life, but it never takes. The pain of his failures overtakes him and he once again seeks out crack because of the relief it brings: “You feel like everything is ahead of you.” After all, he was once the “Pride of Lowell”, the scrappy young fighter who knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and then he lost it all. His troughs are all the more painful because his peak was so high. Any modest success he achieves now will only be mockery of his past glory, so why try?

It’s not that Dicky doesn’t have people who love him: He has friends and family who demand that he do better and snap out of his addiction, but it never works. Then he meets Charlene.

Dicky has returned from prison, determined to become Micky’s trainer again, but Charlene and Micky’s new handlers forbid it. At first Micky sides with them, then changes his mind and lets Dicky back in the ring (causing Charlene to storm out), then changes his mind again and kicks Dicky out after all. Dicky realizes that he must reach out to Charlene and work things out. He hates her, but he knows Micky needs her.
  • Dicky: I ain’t got no use for you either, but my brother loves you, and you can’t just run away because of me, he don’t deserve that, alright? So I will quit, if you want me to quit.
  • Charlene: You’re full of shit.
  • Dicky: Swear to god, I will quit if it means you come back, but I want you to think about something. Micky has a chance to do something I never did, and in my time I never had.
  • Charlene: Oh yeah: “My big chance was with Sugar Ray Leonard!  I’m so great!  I’m the pride of fucking Lowell! Oh yeah, I fought Sugar Ray Leonard!” I heard it.
  • Dicky: I’m here to make things right.
  • Charlene: Okay, let’s make things right. Number one: you didn’t knock down Sugar Ray Leonard. He tripped.
Then she just looks at him.  Boom. Gutpunch. Dicky’s manic energy deflates. He flounders, and tries to gutpunch her back, but he soon acquiesces, implicitly accepting her terms.

He thinks that offering to quit (and thereby acknowledging that Micky needs her more than him) is the ultimate abasement, and so that’ll win her over. But she has another abasement in mind. It’s not enough to take away his present position, she sees that she has to take away his past position as well. He can’t help if he keeps pretending that he’s passing the mantle on to his brother. He can only help if he admits that it was never his.

This, at long last, is what Dicky needs to hear. He can stop trying to live up to his glory days because they never existed. He’s just who he is, that’s all he’s ever been, that’s all he’ll ever be, and that’s all he needs to be. He loses his past and gains a future. This is the best kind of gutpunch: brutal, incisive, and absolutely necessary.

P.S. This also backs up another old post:
  • The few times that someone has told me what my problem was and actually hit the nail on the head, they were people who hated my guts and never wanted to see me again. In each case, I wasn’t happy to hear it, and I tended to let them know it. Only later did I sheepishly realize that they had actually told me something I needed to hear.


j.s. said...

I remember when you first praised this film and I felt like you were overrating it. Yet you've gradually won me over with your precise painstaking explication of the dramatic writing/storytelling. And this my favorite post you've done about THE FIGHTER yet.

Matt Bird said...

Thanks! Yeah, it's hard, I wanted to add a recent drama to the checklists, but there really aren't any universally beloved/acclaimed non-adaptation dramas from the last decade. This is the closest I could come up with. Normally, I don't like to get in a position where I'm saying, "Well here's why I love it though you may not", because the whole point of this series is to say, "Here's why we all love it."

I had the same issue with "40 Year Old Virgin": I wanted to add a recent comedy, but again I couldn't come up with one that was universally beloved/acclaimed, so that was the closest I could get.

j.s. said...

I mentioned Edgar Wright recently as a my choice for the director of a Bizarro film. What do you think of his second feature, HOT FUZZ? Now there's a recent comedy that feels both universally acclaimed by critics and audiences alike and consistently funny over time, each time I revisit it.

Matt Bird said...

I liked HOT FUZZ okay, but, as with the other Edgar Wright movies I've seen, the tone is too all-over-the-map for me, and so I end up not feeling much affection for them afterwards. In the end I thought it had too much plot, overly brutal violence, and a lead performance from Pegg that wavered between satire and spoof when it should have been one or the other.

So yeah, I have to pick movies that are acclaimed and also favorites of mine, and that doesn't always line up.

Unknown said...

What did you think of "Whiplash" last year?

Matt Bird said...

I loved it:


It's funny that I didn't think of that. It would be a good one.