Southpaw adds to Gyllenhaal’s increasingly polished filmography

by Steve Pulaski

Boxing is a barbaric sport that simply makes the possibility of obtaining life-threatening and/or debilitating injuries to someone’s life at a young age more prevalent, but yet, it’s one of the most popular international sports. Boxing is so popular because of the fact that it’s simple and fulfills animalistic aggression inside its spectators and its participators. It takes the frustration and anger emotions and exemplifies them through the universally understood action of punching and beating the everloving hell out of somebody. It fills an audience with excitement and adrenaline, as it does its actual pugilists, but the common ground achieved between the audience and the fighters is in the gratification. Through every punch, a strong human chord is struck in everyone who witnesses it and some reaction, internal or external, is prompted.

Fighting seems to be imbedded in New York City boxer Billy Hope’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) life. Raised in foster care throughout much of his young life and making a name for himself thanks to his ability to throw a crushing, Earth-shattering blow to his opponents, Billy has had to fight for something his entire life, be it a meal, a family, or the next belt in the ranks. Right by his side throughout the entire time of his fighting career are his loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). After his most recent fight sees him stumble and hesitate a bit more than normal, Maureen tells Billy that he should consider hanging up his gloves for a while, despite intense pressure by his manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) to ink a deal with HBO.

During a ceremony where Billy is set to announce his future plans, an altercation between Billy and rival boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) occurs in the lobby. This simple scuffle results in an all-out brawl, which leaves Maureen shot and killed by Miguel’s brother Hector. Billy is beyond distraught; his voice of reason, true love, and his tender touch after all the brutal blows has been robbed from him in the blink of an eye. Billy begins to fall prey to crippling grief, alcoholism, and drug dependency, with the coffin-sealing nail being a disastrous fight that results in him headbutting a referee.

Directed by
Antoine Fuqua
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence
Release Date
24 July 2015
Steve’s Grade: B

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When Billy is scraping the bottom of the barrel, constantly in a sorrowful state in addition to being physically and emotionally exhausted following Leila’s placement in foster care, he looks towards Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker), a boxing trainer at a local-area gym, for assistance. Titus’s mannered, methodical steps are what Billy needs to try and not only revitalize his career but rebuild his life anew.

Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw is a brutal picture; similar to American Sniper last year, anyone who isn’t used to seeing dramas with a plethora of heartwrenching events an excessive brutality may find themselves really amazed and even startled to see how far this picture goes in painting crippling depression and grief. At the center of all the sadness is Gyllenhaal, who has proven to be one of the most awe-inspiring leading men Hollywood has to offer. Following numerous strong, creepy performances in films like Prisoners and Nightcrawler, Southpaw adds to Gyllenhaal’s increasingly polished filmography in terms of showcasing rich, often frightening performances.

Gyllenhaal’s ability to be completely believable whilst cycling through numerous emotions proves him to be an actor with many impeccable talents. Consider his calculated movements in Nightcrawler, where he held blank stares for much of the film, beared a thin figure, and forced himself not to blink very frequently. Now consider Southpaw, a film where he has to go from one emotion to the next, often within the same scenes, throughout the film’s entirety. Certain scenes, particularly with his character’s daughter, start with Gyllenhaal holding a drowsy, dazed demeanor and escalate into groveling and crying within two or three minutes.

Southpaw is almost guaranteed to take the viewer on an emotion rollercoaster, again, especially those not well-acquainted with this territory. For the most part, the film doesn’t manipulate audience’s emotions, but every now and then, we get the predictable attack lines from Leila to Billy, where the subsequent scenes are set to orchestration. These scenes are clearly meant to prompt reaction and do so in a manner that’s less than subtle.

It’s also worth noting that Southpaw is greatly levied by capable supporting performances by, not only Whitaker, but 50 Cent as well, who is all but guaranteed to get shafted due to his limited scenes in the film. His cut-throat, business-minded character that places personal value on Billy depending on his present monetary value and relevance throughout the film makes for a soul who is consistently interesting on screen, predominately because of how real this character not only feels, but is. This melting pot of varying actors and characters, in turn, makes Southpaw‘s occasional bouts of sentimentality and narrative predictabilities less apparent than if the acting was subpar.

Nonetheless, this is the kind of picture that is destined to please the crowd, similar to American Sniper and The Judge, where even the more negative reviews will fail to keep the populous from enjoying a simple, well-told story about a very human character. Even for a mainstream film, however, Southpaw is a gritty and brutal picture, with well-choreographed action and blows that punctuate an immersive story for those who want the full admission price to feel worth it.