Friday, June 6, 2014

Christian Bale: The Fighter vs Out of the Furnace

2010, David O Russell (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook) -- download
2013, Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) -- download

I held a weird mirror held up between these two movies. In Out of the Furnace, Bale plays Russell Baze, a hard working man dedicated to his family and his moral compass. Casey Affleck plays his nogoodfornuttin younger brother, usually drunk or high or fighting ... or some combination of the three. In The Fighter Bale plays Dickey Eklund, the nogoodfornuttin brother of Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward, a boxer doing his best to establish himself. Dickey is a washout ex-boxer seeking a comeback, training his brother but screwing it all up with crack and petty crimes. Both movies take place in working class towns full of snaggle toothed questionably moral-ed people.

I imagine that the writers and directors of Hollywood have a strange relationship with working man stories, especially now, as we watch the divide between working class and wealthy class separate even further. Even I experience this in a minimal (major? look at the last line of the last paragraph) way, having left a working class small city (coal, steel, fishing) but was never directly part of that milieux -- my dad was a newspaper distribution supervisor. As I moved around Canada in mostly large cities, I felt further from that origin. But in all working class depictions I see a sense of timeless familiarity. I know the nobility of Work Hard but I also remember all too clearly the snaggle tooth, in personality if not always molars.

The depiction is always walking the line between admiration and loathing. Take Russell Baze -- the movie gives us the epitome of an admirable blue collar guy. He works in a steel factory, hard and dangerous work, and he comes home to empty his pockets caring for his dying father and screwup brother. He is loyal to a fault, affectionate and admired by his peers for his sacrifices. Then we see Dickey, crack-head and completely lost in his not-exactly-successful past. So the man knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (debatable); that was ages ago and he hasn't done anything since. His family is scary (OK, his sisters are scary) and his friends are the worst of the worst for a small city - the local crackheads and whores and petty crooks not taken seriously by anyone. I see Bale as the Janus of Hollywood, expertly accepting both sides of the working man coin.

That both of  these guys are pulled off expertly by Christian Bale impressed me. I always thought of him as one note, Batman gravelly vs Quinn Abercromby, Dragon Slayer vs John Connor. But here he mirrors the two men so fucking well. Dickey is astoundingly not-Bale, but I suspect there was more of the man in Baze. When you see the post-credit footage of the real people the movie was based on, you see some impressive emulation. Hell, even the past-40 bald spot adds to the character depiction.  He is loud, annoying and just so much out there, more so than typical Bale. Russel Baze is more typically reserved Bale, but he establishes a deep integrity in the character very early on; you see the tension and pressure of his family and environment but he always remains calm, dependable, respectable. That the character suffers at the hands of Fate, drinking a glass of Scotch he cannot refuse and then getting into a car accident, but still maintains his relationship behind the walls. We knew he would stay at the scene, that he would take responsibility. Working Man Hero.

Both movies are character focused, and while The Fighter should be more about the lead Wahlberg, it was always about Bale for me.  Even if I hated much about the character, it was just so fascinating to watch. In the end, I guess both movies showed the responsibility and nobility that comes with a dedication to family. Both characters end up admirable, even if Baze is lowered in our eyes by making the hard, ultimately more human choice, while Dickey pulls up his track pants and does what he needs to do to regain his brother's respect. The fighter in question may be Micky Ward, but we root for Dickey.

A little about each plot? Out of the Furnace has Russell Baze going to jail for vehicular man slaughter, from a blatant example of alcohol impairing judgement. He accepts his fate but his life falls apart as he is in jail -- his father dies, his girlfriend leaves him and his brother falls in with criminals. When his brother eventually falls, Baze accepts that retribution must come at his hands. Its a gloomy, ingrained dirt kind of movie taking place in a Pennsylvania steel town. The Fighter is a boxing movie, depicting real life boxers Mickey Ward and ex-boxer Dickey Eklund, from Lowell, Massachusetts. It covers the rise of Mickey, after he accepts that his family is holding him down, eventually becoming a rising star in the sport, but really only after he accepts his brother back into his faith.