My day job is as an economics reporter, so one of the debates I’ve been involved in is what causes poverty. I’m firmly in the camp that your personal character has little-to-nothing to do with your economic outcomes. Southpaw’s Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an instructive example: In terms of impulse control, maturity, and financial know-how, he’s a complete mess. But fortune blessed him with a talent for hitting people, and he happens to live in a world where that talent can be spectacularly monetized. So he’s filthy rich.
Thankfully, I have nothing close to Billy’s character issues. I have the behavioral and conceptual tools to navigate the upper class world, along with a (fairly) good moral compass. But I also couldn’t tell you the first thing about where those abilities came from. They’re as much a product of luck as Billy’s boxing talent, which is also why I’m skeptical of the whole “personal character” discussion.
Unfortunately, I suspect I come off like I think personal character isn’t important. I think it’s incredibly important, largely because it’s such a mysterious thing that stands vulnerable and powerless before the impersonal forces of fate and economics. For that same reason, I don’t think we should discuss it in the realms of politics and policy. Where we should talk about personal character is in our art – like movies. And what I liked about Southpaw is it’s all about the construction of internal character.
When we first meet Billy, he’s at the absolute pinnacle of his boxing career, after rising from an impoverished childhood in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage. He has a gorgeous wife, Maureen Hope (Rachel McAdams), a delightfully precocious little girl named Leila (Oona Laurence), a massive mansion, and a sly wheeler-dealer of a manager (50 Cent). But Maureen, who grew up in that same orphanage, sees cracks in the dream: Even though Billy’s still winning, he’s going to be punch-drunk before too long. And when that happens, Maureen warns him, his manager and entourage will abandon him, and it will be up to her and Leila to pick up the pieces.
Gyllenhaal and McAdams are both gifted actors, and watching them play these early scences is remarkable. Billy, typically a loose cannon, finds the space for self-examination when Maureen speaks, and he can see the truth in her observations. Their relationship is a kind of extreme but stable equilibrium, formed from the gender norms of a very particular street subculture. Maureen handles more or less all the daily logistics of Billy’s life, using a recognizable mix of gentle empathy, sharp motherly straight-talk, and sexual wiles to guide her husband. Meanwhile, Billy basically punches people to bring home the bacon. What makes it work is that they clearly both love each other, and love their daughter. There’s a delightful scene where both Maureen and Leila help Billy prep for a speech at a charity event.
I’m not giving away anything that isn’t in the trailer when I reveal that Billy is goaded into a fist fight with a rival boxer (Miguel Gomez) at the event’s after party. Given the culture both men arose from, their entourages carry guns. A shot goes off, and in a series of awful and incredibly affecting closeups staged by director Antoine Fuqua, Maureen bleeds out and dies on the marble floor.
Billy, needless to say, comes completely unglued. The legal repercussions of the incident destroy his finances, his house is repossessed, and his manager absconds to the employ of the very rival who sparked the fight. Suicidally depressed, Billy gets drunk and crashes his car on his front lawn, the cops find a weapon on him, and child protective services take Leila away.
So Billy must begin the slow, painful process of rebuilding. He gets a job as the night clean-up guy at a local boxing gym, where the owner, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) becomes a mentor and father figure. They have two solid dialogue scenes, one where Tick challenges Billy to better himself, and the other where Tick rages helplessly against the capricious chaos of the universe after the gym is struck by tragedy. Eventually, Tick becomes Billy trainer, teaching him to protect himself and outmaneuver his opponent, rather than merely endure long enough to beat the other boxer into submission. Other unexpected friends Billy finds along the way are Jon Jon (Beau Knapp), the one member of his crew who doesn’t abandon him, and Angela Rivera (Naomie Harris), the social worker overseeing Leila’s case.
The script by Kurt Sutter isn’t terribly creative – it of course ends with Billy’s climactic return to the ring – but it’s yeoman-like work that gives the actors and Fuqua a solid foundation. Thanks to the performances especially, Southpaw is considerably better than it would sound on paper. What’s especially good is watching Billy rebuild his shattered relationship with an enraged and grief-stricken Leila, and the way he learns to conjure within himself the balance and control that Maureen gave him. The rest of Southpaw’s success is thanks to the power of McAdams’ performance, and her early scenes with Gyllenhaal. I have never seen a film where the early death of a character hangs with such visceral emotional weight over the rest of the proceedings. Late in the film, when Tick tells Billy “Maureen is watching you,” it must have looked utterly corny on paper. But in the context of the performances and direction, it totally works.
It’s also hard not to see some resonance between Fuqua and his protagonist. The director’s last two films – The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen – were revenge and action-adventure fantasies, and both allowed Fuqua to indulge his less savory instincts. The violence in The Equalizer was far more bloody and vicious than it needed to be, given the subject matter, and Olympus Has Fallen includes a scene that unapologetically endorses torture in the pursuit of national security. But in Billy, Fuqua finds a far more morally constructive synthesis of the forces and themes that seem to drive him as a director. Billy does engage in legitimate violence, but it’s legitimate because it operates within the highly structured and abstracted world of a sports competition. Outside of the ring, Billy must learn calm by understanding, taming and channeling those same instincts. Gyllenhaal’s performance nails the physicality of this process.
Southpaw is not a great film. But it is a good one, and it touches on great ideas. And to the same degree I think it’s destructive to allow the “personal character” conversation to intrude on political discussions of economic policy, I think it is good and right that our society tell stories like this.