Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker carry this boxing film higher than its fairly average pedigree would normally allow.
Billy Hope is at the top of his game in professional boxing, but when a terrible incident sees his wife shot and killed, he finds himself unable to cope with the loss and risks losing his daughter too. Can he prove himself to both her and those around him before he loses everything?
I purely wanted to see Southpaw because of leading star Gyllenhaal and his physical transformation for the role of a heavyweight boxer. He is proving time and time again now that he throws himself into the role, and the film opens with relish; showing Gyllenhaal as a terrifying storm in the ring who’s reckless fighting style has him bloody and bruised before he can destroy his opponents.
The first half of this film is a bloody, bleak and quite oppressive experience. The word “endurance” came to mind several times and I imagined that this was thematically deliberate; the audience experiencing the struggle with Billy while his character battles far worse injuries than any he takes in the ring.
This hard opening, watching a simple man’s life being systematically destroyed was a struggle at times, and not just because of its content but because I found the characters a little shallowly written at first. Even when things go wrong, I didn’t feel much emotional attachment to those suffering the consequences. This even leaks into the superior second half, again when misfortune falls upon a character we didn’t get to know especially well.
But, after the first half the film develops into the more formulaic boxing film storyline (yes, there is a training montage!) and while this might sound like a bad thing, I actually became a lot more sensitive to their emotions at this point.
There are a couple of scenes between Gyllenhaal and his new trainer Wills played by Forest Whitaker that are very powerful and meaningful. Gyllenhaal does not disappoint in any of his scenes, seamlessly going from simple brute to mellowing father extremely well. He also shares scenes with his daughter, played by young Oona Laurence (who was a very good child actress!) which are also very emotional and intense.
The film ends much stronger than it began, a slow boil weighed down with obvious foreshadowing and a weak, unmemorable script. But if you power through the stiff, unrelenting start, it becomes a gritty story of finding one’s self-respect and inner strength.