Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Boxer (1997)

I am thinking today of the Daniel Day-Lewis Movie “The Boxer” of 1997. I'd rented the video ages ago, thinking it was a movie Dear Wife and I could both watch (she loves Daniel Day-Lewis). I was hoping "The Boxer" would start with the Simon and Garfunkle song of the same name, maybe sung by a group of Irish choir boys--but it didn't. I was disappointed because I used to listen to this song and get all charged up, but I can't really say for certain I understand what it's about, or that I can understand all the lyrics, though emotionally it sure do hit home. I know it's indefensible in this Web Age to admit you don't know something, at least not without first trying an online search for somebody else's facts or opinions. In this case I haven't bothered. Should you stop reading now?

Though “The Boxer” the movie is something I watched once, a few years ago, I nonetheless feel authorized to comment on because . . . well, because in the absence of a steady stream of Daniel Day-Lewis acting gigs, it has become amplified in retrospect.

D.D.L. can't sign a contract and show up for a film without first packing himself in the brine of radical commitment, and his films are always improved for the reek of it, if not in the actual on-screen product, then at least by the proof that somebody once cared about the project deeply, and this compels us to have a closer look.

Of the movie, I remember unbelievably grimy wallpaper featuring prominently in the frame on multiple instances, often with some sort of Irish squabble going on in front of it. Everyone looked alternately padded with soot and washed with warm lard in the interior scenes, or cold lard for the exteriors. I remember a boxing gym that looked like the type that may in fact exist somewhere like old, depressed Belfast, and admired its spacious, grimy glory--not as a cineaste, but as a boxing practitioner (not, I admit, a bona fide "boxer"). As a cineaste, the gym was pure cliché.

DDL was a man out from the joint, a non-rat IRA man, or an IRA man that was good, but ratted, or was assumed to have ratted--scratch that, I think he took the hard time instead of ratting; and there's the girl he left behind, who remained so terrified and hysterical in all the scenes I can remember that she is frequently made (by the film makers) to work against him; and there is the evil boss, the crooked IRA local politico, played with a nostalgic menace by the ubiquitous Brian Cox, (who hopefully gets all this out of his system in his day job, or must be hell to live with). Cox, who was probably at this time just working his way to ubiquity for roles such as this, huffs and rails and dissembles smilingly, then scowlingly, and then cooly orders murders; he gets his ire up at the insult that there exists a man not bent to his will somewhere on this planet, or at least in his parish; he will exploit the pain and confusion of the weak, the patriotism of the passive. In short, he's a wonderfully comforting on-screen omniscience that stopped needing reasoned exposition about 45 years ago. We know he's bad, so we can relax and watch him badding and badding, and will rate the role’s "effectiveness" on how truly bad he can be. This is fine, but seemed to suck vital ambiguities from DDL's mighty struggle to put on a show. His own demons receded as increasing screen-time was devoted to this Bogeyman Boss Tweed et cie.

Such an intelligent actor--films with DDL in the cast seem to go one of two ways: either the movie revolves on his axis (happens even in a role as slight as his Cyril, from “A Room With A View”); the other times you get the feeling that he's something quite apart from the movie, orbiting distantly, and only intermittently exerting any gravity on the main body before us--I don't feel these instances of distant orbit are always his fault, often its the director’s difficulty to hitch his/her movie's wagon properly to this Boxer of a horse, who is selflessly driving forward, toward what he thinks to be the good of the movie (I don’t think the Orwell’s Boxer analogy applies as well to his character in this particular movie, except as a ceaseless moral force that drags everyone forward through his example, or something). Must be hard to discern just what this “good of the movie” really is in all cases, esp. when there are cameras and lights everywhere and a restive crew, and you have to step over countless cables while pacing back and forth, trying to figure how you can replace tomorrow's location with someplace available: who can get a bearing on a film's soul in those conditions?

I once thought DDL directed this, and saw it for that reason. He didn't. Jim Sheridan did.

Is the whole thing a little preachy? Hell yes, and I hate when a movie feels like it's really just an excuse to lecture--I guess there are some people somewhere who are unaware of the invidiousness of Irish division, or of the broader moral implications of rationalizing violence, thanks. But frankly I was more interested in seeing DDL’s form in the ring. He looks quite good, tho’ not always shown to best effect, and there’s not enough of it, and when there is, it’s too much. Sheridan, in a scene set in the ring of a London gentlemen’s fight club, where DDL is pitted against an oddly shaped african opponent that made me think of Ike Quarty, begins painting a convincing picture of the fight game’s true cruelty, but backs away with just a few general forms blocked in. Then he climbs back on the soap box, as if the movie had no reason to exist beyond social significance. This tends to negate DDL’s commitment.