Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation from the underweight and unsettling Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler to the undisputed champion in Southpaw is both astonishing and captivating. Gyllenhaal’s talent is shown not only in the physicality of his role as Billy Hope, but also in the family moments with his wife, Maureen “Mo” (Rachel McAdams), and daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). The genius of director Antoine Fuqua’s film lies in the subtle glimpses at the real-life consequences presented to the families of fighters, and how one fight can change the course of their lives. Southpaw is an emotional battle between the desire to be great and the responsibilities of a father.
A central critique on the marketing for this film was the major reveal that Rachel McAdams’ character Maureen “Mo” Hope is killed. I must admit, this plot twist seemed to be an important aspect of the film that, perhaps, should have been omitted from the marketing. However, after seeing this movie, the death of Maureen is carried out during the first act of the film, and the rest of the film is developed from there.
Prior to her death, Billy Hope is the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. Feeling bored by the constant victories, it seems that Billy toys with his opponents, allowing them to physically best him for the majority of the fight, before knocking them out in the final round. The genius of Antoine Fuqua’s directing style is seen in the subtle glances at the blood-stained towels from the fight and the distraught expression of a concerned wife. Worried about his actions, Mo confronts him about his carelessness and the possibility of retiring, which he does not seem to take seriously. She fears that once his reign as champion has come to an end, all of his supposed friends and supporters will scatter like “roaches.”
After being insulted by an up-and-coming fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), Billy loses his cool and lets his pride best him, as he attacks Escobar in the lobby of a charity event held in his honor. The two trade blows, while one of Escobar’s crew pulls out a weapon and attempts to shoot one of Billy’s friends. The shot, instead, finds Maureen Hope and altercation quickly turns deadly. Quickly, Billy finds himself without many friends left in his corner, and with a decreasing amount of money, as the death of his wife causes him to spiral out of control. His reckless actions create a domino effect, which causes him to lose his home, his daughter, and the luxury of fighting in the ring. And, all of this occurs during the first act of the film, which is to say that the rest of it develops from there, as Billy copes with the loss of his wife and tries to find a way back to his daughter.
In an effort to prove his ability to maintain a job, Billy reaches out to Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a former pro-fighter trainer that now works with under-privileged teens. Willing to help Billy out, Wills offers him a job as an overnight janitor, but the prospect of cleaning toilets rubs Billy the wrong way and he storms out. His pride is quickly reversed, as he realizes that this may be his only option and the only way to see his daughter. He befriends some of the local boys, and helps Wills around the gym. Seeing his progress, Wills, eventually, decides to begin his training, and their relationship proves to be fodder for some levity in the film.
Their training eventually begins, and Billy has to learn a new component to hit fighting approach: defense. Tick helps him improve in this area, but the real magic lies in Gyllenhaal’s training to get to this point. In a video from Variety, Gyllenhaal discusses the process of preparing for the role of Billy Hope and the training involved to become a legitimate boxer.
The most compelling aspect of this film, without a doubt, is Gyllenhaal’s performance. In his 2014 film Nightcrawler, he lost between 20-30 pounds for the role of Lou Bloom, and for Southpaw, he gained that weight back, plus an additional 15 pounds of muscle. This kind of dedication from an actor should not go unnoticed, but his performance captivates beyond his physicality. Gyllenhaal has aptly been called a “chameleon,” namely for his ability to become the characters he portrays. Much like Nightcrawler, audiences will not see Jake Gyllenhaal but Billy Hope; a man torn by apart by the death of his wife, and the loss of his daughter.
Despite following the familiar beats and cliches of a typical boxing movie, Southpaw felt like it had a lot more heart and depth. Gyllenhaal’s performance, alone, is worth the price of admission. Though I highly praise this film, many have had mixed reactions, criticizing the film for falling into the tropes of this type of film and for a lack of emotional appeal. Still, in a flurry of superheroes and dinosaurs, Southpaw grounds the movie-going experience into something more approachable, but can still pack a punch.
See Southpaw in theaters now!