One of these days, I think the Motion Picture Academy should look into the work of an actor named Jake Gyllenhaal. Sure, a decade ago he was nominated for an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but since then– nothing. Southpaw is his fourth straight jaw-dropping performance, and if history is any guide, it will sadly be met with the same collective yawn that his work in End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler were.
Here he plays boxing champion Billy Hope– an orphan who worked his way up through the system to reach the apex of his sport. After his latest title defense, his wife Mo (Rachel McAdams) starts having doubts about his longevity– she want him to retire on top, before he becomes “punch-drunk” and doesn’t even recognize her or their 10-year-old daughter anymore.
At a charity event one night, Mo is tragically shot and killed, sending Hope into a downward spiral that results in his losing everything– his fortune, house, and even his daughter, whom he is deemed unfit to look after anymore.
Cue the Rocky theme, as Hope starts at the absolute bottom and slowly begins picking himself back up. He works with an old school trainer (Forest Whitaker), struggles to re-team with his daughter (Oona Laurence), and eventually gets another title shot.
Gyllenhaal is brilliant throughout– backed by the always-solid Whitaker and also by 12-year-old Laurence, who might just be the most gifted young actress in Hollywood today. She goes toe-to-toe with Gyllenhaal and never gets lost in the shadows; it’s an amazing performance.
If Gyllenhaal’s work does go overlooked in the upcoming award season, it may be more because of the movie itself. Director Antoine Fuqua, working from a script by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), starts out guns-blazing– Southpaw is a gritty, powerful film that puts you not only inside the boxing ring but inside Hope’s tormented psyche. It’s dripping with blood, spit, and sweat and is as heartbreaking and gut-wrenching as any movie in years. But then, at about the halfway point, it unfortunately morphs quickly into every boxing movie ever– rife with all the cliches and tropes you’ve seen before in the Rocky series, The Hurricane, Raging Bull, and many others.
It’s too bad, really– especially given the promise we see in the film’s first hour. But hopefully it won’t distract from fantastic on-screen performances of everyone involved. Southpaw may end up as “just another boxing movie”, but it’s not “just another” performance from Gyllenhaal. This guy’s the real deal, and it’s high time someone took notice.