The performances Robert De Niro gave for Martin Scorsese were etched into the canon for their flame-seared intensity. But you rewatch them and see a man whose temperature fluctuates upwards and downwards. When he kills Harvey Keitel’s pimp in Taxi Driver, it’s prefaced with a “hey, Sport” that’s played with chilling innocence. Simple relativism: Hot is only hot when you feel it after cold. It’s the “hey,” not the gunshot, that gets you.
As Billy Hope, the Jake La Motta-esque boxer in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal runs so hot that the thermometer breaks. He’s a Hell’s Kitchen orphan-turned-junior heavyweight champ who redeemed himself by starting a family (Rachel McAdams plays Maureen, his tough-girl wife, rocking an accent as affected as her gun-moll attitude) and exorcises his leftover angst in the ring. He screams into the camera, mid-fight, as though he took the title Raging Bull too literally. A fiery performance, sure—but he’s firing blanks.
The script is by Sons of Anarchy auteur Kurt Sutter, which is to say that the characters are archetypes of the Biblical, Shakespearean, and Scorsesean varieties. McAdams gets saddled with the weight of playing star-crossed lover and Lady Macbeth simultaneously: She mouths off to a rival during press conferences, but begs Jake to retire during post-fight cuddles, and then—when said rival’s posse fires a shot during a scuffle—she takes a bullet. It would be generous to even say that McAdams plays a character. Her existence, and its end, is merely what’s needed to get Hope to rock-bottom. She’s a sacrificial actress.
Her death turns Billy into Job with anger management issues. And the script throws more tragedies at him than would a black-and-white melodrama. Child Protective Services takes his daughter away, and she promptly turns her back on him. Billy strikes a referee mid-fight, instigating two lawsuits. Then he loses his boxing license. Soon he’s being rejected from janitorial jobs. Sutter would drop a piano on the character’s head mid-fight, if only he could find an arena with an open roof.
Gyllenhaal sees the utter lack of subtlety in the scenario—his character ends up with a living cliché, a one-eyed over-the-hill trainer (Forest Whitaker) who drops golden oldies à la “boxing is like a chess match”—and elevates his game to comparably ridiculous heights. He delivers his dialogue with the old Terry Malloy-mumble, but his abrasive facial gestures (eyes flared, head shaking, neck cranking left and right) make even that seem loud. This isn’t acting, it’s contortion.
Southpaw is about finding grace and redemption through suffering, via the channeling of rage into talent—which is to say that it represents how a 12-year-old would interpret Raging Bull. And it borrows that film’s most iconic scene: Hope, like LaMotta to Sugar Ray, throws his hands down mid-fight and challenges his opponent to give him the punishment he deserves. But the nuances of De Niro’s performance—the sadness in his eyes, the shallowness of his reactions to triumph, the sheer, unshakeable defeat that he carries through each scene—are missing. All Gyllenhaal has are the gestures themselves: the screams, the flexed muscles, the Brando diction—the most tired external symbols of toxic masculinity. They burn this movie out.
SOUTHPAW. RATED R. OPENS EVERYWHERE FRI 7.24.