Spoilers at no extra charge!
In the last few weeks I’ve been very focused on why stories are so important to us. It’s not news, granted, but the fact remains that humans really like stories, be that real stories, fake stories, real mixed with fake, regular, political, fantastical, you name it and there’ll be an audience for it.
This was very much on my mind when I went to the movies to watch Southpaw. As a story lover, sports themes are beyond last on my spectrum of interest. I have no time for the struggle, the strife or the pain that goes into becoming a first class athlete. We all know that reaching the top at a physical profession is hard, there’s no story there as far as I’m concerned. All the same I sat down to watch it, knowing very little about it besides the fact that it was a movie about a boxer. Ok, I’m not going to lie, Jake Gyllenhaal was the clincher in that I, ahem… “admire” his acting abilities, *cough cough.* Ok, so the dude’s hot!
To the point though: Southpaw starts at the top of the main character’s athletic career. Billy Hope has got it all; he’s beautiful, talented, rich, famous, rose from nothing to the pinnacle of his profession and all without losing a single fight. The viewer is thrown into this perfect life and finds himself rooting for this guy, because he’s tough but gentle and loving too and who through hard work and talent has managed to build himself a great career, a beautiful home and a family. His wife is his childhood sweetheart and together they have a little girl who adores them and who is adored in return. Pretty idyllic right?
Identifiability is at the core of any story. It’s seeing that character, or part of them, in yourself, or the opposite, putting yourself in their shoes and wondering what would I do in that situation? Southpaw gives sight at a lifestyle that most of us would sell our right kidney to achieve, so we know the stakes involved. However, just as all good stories should, it takes a turn; by way of selfish miscalculation and obedience to his ego, rather than the reasonable voice of his wife, he is embroiled in an altercation and the wife is killed, leaving him with two sets of immeasurable grief, his own and his kid’s. The snow globe has ruptured and it is losing pressure fast.
It is at this point that Southpaw’s life unravels and he slips into self-destruct mode from where he loses his money, his house and is on the verge of losing his daughter both by her being taken into the welfare system and, worse of all, by the force of her blame over the loss of her mother. Now Southpaw is forced to find the strength to start from scratch, retrain, gain focus, control his spiralling emotions and put the pieces of his life back together, senza wife and kid.
Though I don’t wish to spoil it entirely for those of you that have yet to see it, the end is pretty predictable; of course he gets his shit together and wins both his family and his career back by way of some rigorous body and mind training and all’s well and all that jazz.
The skill in this story wasn’t in the plot-we’ve seen all that before. The power was in the telling. The narration of the story showed his humanity, his vulnerability and his weakness in the face of this disaster, for which he was essentially to blame, which made you identify with Southpaw and his struggle. I’ll take a guess at saying that most of the viewers will not be boxers but we all know the stakes involved in one form or another. There’s the rigorous training, the pain, the focus, even the hint at the deep psychological warpage that makes someone choose a profession where they agree to get the shit kicked out of them for money. If that’s not Freudian I don’t know what is.
The beauty about this movie was how well it was orchestrated. It was a story wonderfully told from every angle, be that acting, scriptwriting or direction, each aspect was carefully worked, so much so that I was left wondering if it was based on a true story. From what I can tell it was not, but it had enough realistic elements to make you think so. And by realistic I don’t mean “real world,” I mean that it stayed true to its narrative much like GOT can be realistic provided it stays true to its narrative. In this case the anguish was convincing, and the connection with the character was there because you could feel the conflict between his immense pain vs the urgent need to put it aside and pull his pants up.
The beauty hid in the fact that this strong talented boxer was physically fierce but lacked the emotional means to keep his life together in the absence of his wife. Modern and poetic. By the end not only did he get his life and his kid back but also the emotional maturity to see where he had gone wrong the first time. Whoop Whoop Billy Hope says I!
The trope of making dreams come true and vanquishing adversity resonates with most people and was the key to the relatability of this film despite the out there nature of his profession. It was certainly more powerful to have the juxtaposition of the big strong boxer with the emotional strength of a child grow into his own than it would have been a corporate world worker who for many might be a more familiar sight but maybe not as strong a message.
Southpaw should totally be up for an Oscar this year.
In contrast to this Hitman: Agent 47 was, on paper at least, more of the kind of movie I would purposely go to watch. Spy/Sci-fi in nature and with some cool genetic tweaking thrown into the mix, it had the potential for good movie watching and yet it fell flatter than an A4.
Perhaps it marks the difference of a script written purely with the goal of commercial success as opposed to one that has all the signs of a decent creative venture.
The main character, a highly sensitive, genetically mutated girl who is on the run from something called the Syndicate is being hunted down for her skills which will be used to locate her father, the only man who knows how to make more of her. At first she appears scared, vulnerable, down to earth and bohemian; she is also a technophobe and a map using (yes real paper), archive digging polymath who, in theory, I should have been much more able to identify with. Yet I was left completely cold. The script was poor, full of holes and lacked conviction. One minute she can sense people coming for her in her sleep and the next she is fully awake and alert and doesn’t sense jack shit. What the fuck is that all about? Poor script that’s what.
At no point did I relate to her plight, which is closer to my field of interest than a male boxing champion ever would be; neither did I connect with her emerging bad assery, which felt rushed and out of character. She was as delicate, damaged and vulnerable as they come yet at no point did I feel concerned that she might die. Neither did I wonder how or whether she was going to get out of all of it alive, despite attempts to make her appear charitable, humble and chosen. Her own attachment to the male characters was cold and weak (nothing like Southpaw’s connection to his wife) even though one of the male leads turns out to be her brother who wakes her long suppressed childhood memories of abandonment. Blah!
Katia starts off as a frightened, feeble semblance of a human being but through the help of 47 she is given the space to grow and mature as the movie progresses so that she can come into her own, an improved version of the genetically enhanced human being that we know her to be by way of the film’s messages. In her universe her struggle is also very real; she fights to prove that both she and the automaton that she is travelling with are responsible for their choices and that they are not simply action figures made up by the sum of their parts, or that their mutated powers and lack of emotion, as in the case of 47, are affecting their humanity. Great in theory but it all fails to transfer out of the glossy look on the screen. Her pain simply does not contaminate the viewer.
I don’t know if you need to see both these films to recognize the similarities other than read about them here, but I thought there were enough common points in the search for personal growth at high stakes to make me wonder about weak and strong story telling. One failed miserably whereas the other was a major success. The power is always in the telling of the story.
Everyone struggles, everyone knows fear and loss and sometimes even bravery but it’s worth nothing at all if by the end of it the character leaves you cold. Blockbuster shootemups might be great for the adrenaline rush you get from watching them but I know that its Southpaw’s maturation and growth that will stay with me for the longer term.
So I ask, what is it that makes a viewer/reader empathize with the character?