Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a knockout performance in ‘Southpaw’

Official Southpaw Facebook Page

The clever taglines on some “Southpaw” posters read, “Believe in hope.” That wordplay refers both to the film’s protagonist, light heavyweight boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhal,) and to its theme of perseverance in the face of hardship. That’s familiar territory for a movie about boxing – or any other sport – to cover, but “Southpaw” won me over by getting in the ring with a story that I recognized. It took me through the fire and every searing development in its narrative felt passionate and true.

When “Southpaw” opens, Billy Hope is a champion who seems to have overcome adversity. He’s undefeated in his weight class and his career successes have bought him a sprawling mansion in New York City. He shares a loving marriage with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) – they grew up together in an orphanage – and is a gentle, caring father to his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Early scenes between Billy, Maureen and Leila are tender and intimate. When tragedy strikes and tears the family apart, it’s devastating.

Director Antoine Fuqua often frames Billy in close-up, honing in on the solemn look in his face. Extreme close-ups give us only Gyllenhaal’s weary eyes – they’re worth all the pained words he doesn’t say. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore mutes the colors to match Billy’s bleak mood as he tries to mend the shattered pieces of his life. There’s a brief shot that places Billy at the bottom of a staircase as he steps into a gym. Fuqua aims the camera from the top of the stairs and Hope, literally and figuratively, looks small and far away. The image is subtle and effective.

Gyllenhaal proves once again that he’s an acting force to be reckoned with. He underwent an eight-month regimen during which he put on 15 pounds of muscle and learned to box. His hard work paid off – I wouldn’t step anywhere near a ring with him in it – but his commitment to the role is just as emotional as it is physical.

The actor erases himself completely behind the broken man that is Billy Hope. Every movement, inflection and expression augments your understanding of his character. You hate him as much as he hates himself, and yet you also grow to love him as you love your friends. Gyllenhaal excels at capturing the audience’s heart in a role that is both archetypal and entirely human.

Forest Whitaker mixes wry gusto with pathos as Titus “Tick” Wills, an aging ex-boxer who reluctantly agrees to train Billy. He’s gruff and tough and haunted by demons from his own long-finished career. He gives Billy the chance and push that he needs to rise again. Whitaker affectingly conveys the spirit of a man who holds others at a distance. Like Billy, I came to feel a kind of rugged kinship with him.

The film’s sound design creates a sense of chaos inside and outside the ring. Voices and musical cues often rush in and out of focus as Billy dodges and deals punches – or as he faces the consequences of his increasingly destructive behavior. When the fighter makes the effort to restore himself to his former glory, the film’s sonic palette follows suit. In one notable montage, the sound of Billy’s one-two punches against an Everlast heavy bag become a kind of heartbeat, pulsing on a loop beneath other noises as the sequence crescendos from struggle to triumph.

James Horner’s music adds the appropriate sentimental touch to this redemption story. Pained string and piano motifs rise and fall beneath echo chamber reverb. Occasional drums resound with an almost processional cadence, lending the onscreen events the gravity of an ancient fable. The cues poignantly complement the images without feeling manipulative. This score was Horner’s last before his untimely death in June, and the film is fittingly dedicated to his memory.

“Southpaw” is no cakewalk. It’s a grueling marathon that requires a unique brand of stamina. The film dove deep into the trenches and pulled me along. I bled when Billy bled and experienced his catharsis as if it were my own. “Southpaw” broke my faith and then built me back up. It made me a believer.

 Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.

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