Have you seen the movie, The Fighter? It’s already won Golden Globes for Melissa Leo and Christian Bale–and looks like a strong Oscar contender in a number of categories. I loved it.
The movie is also–in its depiction of the psychological dynamics within the Ward family of Lowell, Massachusetts–one of the great cinematic evocations of Group Resistance, or what we might call Collectively-Enforced Mediocrity.
How does Resistance play out within a family? Let’s see what the film’s writers and director–Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson and David O. Russell–have to say.
A collective myth
Early in the opening reel we’re shown home-movie footage of tyke Micky (Mark Wahlberg) sparring with his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale). So the kid brother/big brother dynamics are established. We learn also of grown-up Dicky’s claim to fame–that as a fighter he once knocked Sugar Ray Leonard off his feet. This moment has become the Family Myth, the high-water mark of the Ward clan.
Fast forward. Younger brother Micky has now entered his prime as a boxer. Dicky is hanging out at a crack house and hitting the pipe big-time. But he still knows the fight game; he’s training Micky. Micky’s mom Alice (Melissa Leo) does the managing.
In the first fight we see, Dicky and Alice after a booking screwup put young Mick in the ring against a fighter twenty pounds heavier. Predictably, Micky gets his clock cleaned. This act is a criminal violation of the trust Mick has put in people who supposedly love him and have his interests at heart.
Do they? The following is from The War of Art:
Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there’s a parallel peril that also must be guarded against: sabotage by others. Often couples or close friends, even entire families will enter into tacit compacts whereby each individual pledges (unconsciously) to remain mired in the same slough of mediocrity in which he and all his cronies have become so comfortable. The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.
Micky, by showing potential, has become that crab. The other crabs are trying to pull him back down into the bucket.
A champion for the champion
Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a feisty barmaid who takes up with Micky. It doesn’t take Charlene long to suss out the dysfunction of the Ward household (which also includes seven grown sisters): older brother Dicky is “the pride of Lowell,” no one else may mess with that myth.
Charlene wakes Micky up. She takes on mom Alice and does battle with the whole clan. Why do they keep holding Micky down? Why won’t they let him get real management and real training? Are they afraid Micky will outshine Dicky? What are they clinging to so desperately that they’ll sacrifice Micky’s whole life to it?
A fighter in a fog
Here are three key dynamics that the filmmakers got absolutely right:
First, Micky’s passiveness and cluelessness. We might think that a guy who was getting screwed over so outrageously would see it and revolt against it. But in real life, it rarely works that way. In real life, we’re in a fog. A spell has been cast over us. It takes an intervention to snap us out of it. From childhood, Micky has bought in to the family myth. He too worships his older sibling; he’s stuck in the role of kid brother and mired in the long-superannuated obligations of “son.” He can’t believe that the people who love him most could be working against him.
“We love you, now roll over and die.”
Though the family’s overt message, repeated over and over, is “We want Micky to succeed” … beneath the surface they are all working overtime to be sure that he fails. The whole family is unconscious. They’re all in denial. They “love” Micky but they love the comfort of collective mediocrity more.
When a writer begins to overcome his Resistance–in other words, when he actually starts to write–he may find that those closest to him begin acting strange. They are trying to sabotage him. The reason is that they are struggling [unconsciously] against their own Resistance. The awakening artist’s progress becomes a reproach to them. If he can beat these demons, why can’t they?
A truth we can’t stand to face
The filmmakers’ third brilliant observation is this: that though the Ward family’s myth is of their own exceptionalness (Dicky’s big moment of knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard), in truth their lives are a quagmire of mediocrity. That’s why they can’t let Micky succeed. Because if he does, they will be forced to see themselves as they are–and see Dicky and his Big Moment for what it is. (Didn’t Sugar Ray really just slip?)
What the family fears–and what Micky himself is terrified of–is that, if Micky gets a chance, he’ll be great. What happens then? The whole family will explode. Or so they believe.
I won’t tell you the ending of the movie (you’ve probably seen it already anyway), but don’t worry, it’s not a downer.
(A sidebar thought: a case could be made that a democracy is vulnerable to the same dynamic of collectively-enforced mediocrity as a family. Democracies love nothing better than to set heroes up on pedestals, then tear them down with glee.)
A toast to fight flicks
Of all sports movies, boxing films seem for some reason to be the best. They often have the most on their mind–Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Rocky and many more. And of course nothing beats a third-act slugfest in the ring. For my money, add The Fighter to that illustrious list. Kudos to Mark Wahlberg, David O. Russell and everybody who worked on it. Go see it!