Joyce Carol Oates on ‘The Fighter’

Posted by · 11:00 am · February 4th, 2011

On the occasions that they donate some space to the medium, the New York Review of Books can be a source of pretty world-beating film criticism — and from some unexpected voices, at that. A few months ago, I featured Zadie Smith’s matchless essay on “The Social Network,” but if that film’s media ubiquity made it an obvious topic for an intellectual outsider, it’s a delightful surprise to see the venerable American Joyce Carol Oates (herself the author of pugilism tome “On Boxing”) taking on “The Fighter.”

Better yet, she addresses David O. Russell’s boxing biopic with more seriousness and sensitivity than many a well-versed film critic; the film opens today in the UK, and has been greeted by a disappointingly large number of polite but unenthused reviews, many of them carelessly citing a TV aesthetic.

Oates argues for “The Fighter” as a “directorial homage” of sorts to “Raging Bull,” but sees an elegiac conflict in an underdog story that more have likened to the straight-up feelgood storytelling of “Rocky.”

She writes;

Like Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), a similar amalgam of gritty pathos, unabashed sentiment, and very good boxing footage that earned accolades for its principal actors, Eastwood and Hilary Swank, The Fighter is, if not a champion film for all time, a very good, poignant, and commendable expression of its era—postindustrial working-class urban America, bereft of history as it is bereft of jobs, strong unions, pride in one’s work. Lowell, Massachusetts, is the ideal setting for this modest fairy tale of an underdog who finally comes out on top—if but temporarily, and with what cost to him, no one quite knows or seems to care.

I’m pleased to see the film receiving some credit for its intricate tangle of social and geographical detail. The prescribed awards season narrative has focused extensively on the socio-cultural implications of “The Social Network,” but some of its fellow nominees — not just “The Fighter,” but “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone” too — also warrant attention for their own reflections on community in modern America. Read the rest of Oates’s essay here.

[Photo: Paramount Pictures]

→ 13 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

13 responses so far

  • 1 2-04-2011 at 11:41 am

    the other mike said...

    just went to the movies and saw this film recently. i give it full marks. very moving, i surprised myself at how emotional i found it. and christian bale, i mean, it goes without saying. thats as good a supporting actor performance as i can remember.

    i know we are kinda sick of the social network backlash, but still, watch any supporting character in the social network rumored for oscar nods. comaparing any of them to bale is an insult to him

  • 2 2-04-2011 at 11:42 am

    Drew said...

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but from what from what was described to me of the opening, them walking down the street while How you Like me now plays, sounds kind of like a nice sense of community to me. At least from that one vauge description.

    By the way, when can we expect a podcast today, if you don’t mind me asking?

  • 3 2-04-2011 at 11:44 am

    Maxim said...

    “watch any supporting character in the social network rumored for oscar nods. comaparing any of them to bale is an insult to him”

    Love the unintentional ambiguousness of that sentence.

  • 4 2-04-2011 at 11:58 am

    Afrika said...

    I wonder if some critics get paid to wax lyrically about certain movies. Has there ever been any monetary scandal linked to reviews?

  • 5 2-04-2011 at 12:05 pm

    Maxim said...

    Afrika, it’s ‘wax lyrical’ not ‘wax lyrically’.

  • 6 2-04-2011 at 12:24 pm

    Loyal said...

    I love The Fighter, it’s one of the few BP nominees I’ve watched multiple times. The entire cast does tremendous work, especially Bale.

    I’m 100% certain The Fighter will become that rare BP nominee that stands the test of time, joining the ranks of Raging Bull in the pantheon of classic boxing films.

  • 7 2-04-2011 at 12:28 pm

    Parrill said...

    That’s partly why I maintain that the title should have been – “The Pride of Lowell”

    The title as is, kind of just sits there.

    Same with The Town – It should have been “Charlestown”

  • 8 2-04-2011 at 12:53 pm

    frank said...

    “Watch any supporting character in the social network rumored for oscar nods. comaparing any of them to bale is an insult to him”

    Perhaps, that’s because Bale’s role is more or less a co-lead. I know that hasn’t been talked about much (at least I haven’t read it, but the movie is just as much about Dicky as it is about Micky — it’s a two character lead piece just as much as The Kids Are All Right actually is for its two actresses.

    He’s far more the lead here, than, for instance, Forrest Whitaker was in Last King of Scotland, and he’s just as much of a lead, if not more so, than Marlon Brando was in The Godfather (just to name 2 best actor comparisons).

  • 9 2-04-2011 at 2:51 pm

    Lucky Bojangles said...

    well said Frank. Good comparisons too.

  • 10 2-04-2011 at 3:22 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Drew, that’s a great moment. For me it was one of the best openings for a film in 2010 – I was already smiling!

  • 11 2-04-2011 at 4:59 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Afrika: What are you referring to? If you’re talking about Joyce Carol Oates, she’s not a film critic. If you’re talking about me, you clearly haven’t been reading my work for long. Strange to bring it up here.

  • 12 2-05-2011 at 8:30 am

    Craig said...


    That’s a ridiculous comment. Comparing Bale’s performance to, say, Garfield’s wouldn’t be an insult to either of them, since they’re both very good but very DIFFERENT characters and performances. They’re my top 2 in the category and I think it’s a travesty that Garfield didn’t get a nomination, even if Bale was going to win no matter what.

  • 13 2-06-2011 at 2:22 am

    Edward L. said...

    I saw The Fighter this week, and I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about. Maybe it plays better to an American audience (I’m British) but I just thought it was really odd. And I worried about the treatments of some of the characters – they seemed uncomfortably close to caricature (the sisters, for example).

    And I’m not sure that Bale’s performance worked. He did what was needed to convey the character in story terms, but I never believed that I was watching a character called Dicky Eklund: to me, it felt from beginning to end like Bale was being super-indulgent. I’m afraid he also didn’t convince as Mark Wahlberg’s older brother. I’m surprised I’m not reading more criticisms of Bale’s performance. I like the guy and would like to see him win an Oscar for something – just maybe not this.

    I dunno – maybe his performance will work better on a second viewing…