In many ways Southpaw brings the same chips to the table as Rocky or Cinderella Man. In Southpaw we once again, follow the underdog as he tries to work his way back up the boxing world. Though the film does tell a gripping tale of family and hard work, it has an air of familiarity to it; somehow we’ve seen this story before.
The directing is a slightly different story. Antoine Fuqua brings his trademark grit to the film. Though some scenes are distracting or slightly over-done, Fuqua really displays his brilliance in many great sequences.
Ultimately films such as this one have a tendency to be a disappointment. Many films come to mind that have a similar recipe but end up being bland emotionless melodramas. Southpaw however does not fall into this category; it has a single ingredient that sets it apart. Jake Gyllenhaal is brilliant is Southpaw. His performance alone is capable of pulling audiences into the film more than any plot-twists could. Occasionally a performance by an actor could be so strong that the script becomes nearly irrelevant. In the words of the man himself “Great films have been made of mediocre scripts and not great films have been made from great scripts.” Gyllenhaal should not be looked at as mere celebrity without substance. In Southpaw he delivers a fantastic performance that should be studied and analyzed.
The thing that makes Gyllenhaal’s performance so interesting in Southpaw is an acting style that I call “The De Niro Method.” Though not invented by Robert De Niro this method of acting gained huge popularity due to the master-class actor. This method can be summarized by the ability of an actor to underreact to a given situation. Films today are filled with actors that constantly tell us exactly how to feel, by showing us exactly how they feel. Some actors however are more subtle about their choice of facial expressions. These are usually the performances that stand out throughout the history of film.
There are two main reasons why this method is so effective in drawing the audience into a performance. The first is The Law of Diminishing Return. If we witness a character have a large reaction to every single event they encounter, their reaction will simply be less effective when the event is has more value. If we saw Edward Norton cry at every single opportunity in American History X for example, the reaction he displays when he hold his brother near the end of the film would not move us as it did. The same theory applies to Gyllenhaal’s performance in Southpaw. By reserving himself in certain situations, it has a more meaningful effect on us when he does show a large reaction to something.
The second, more predominant, reason this method is so effective, is due to The Kulashov Effect. In the 1920s Soviet filmmaker Lev Kulashov created a number of sequences out of some simple photos: a man’s neutral face, a coffin, a bowl of soup, and a beautiful woman. The first sequence was of the man’s face followed by an image of the coffin, the second was the same man’s face followed by the bowl of soup, and the third was the man’s face followed by the beautiful woman. The reaction of the audience to these sequences was quite interesting. Though the same image of the man was used throughout, audiences experience a man with three different emotions based on the image that followed. The first man was sad, the second was hungry and the third was lustful. This knowledge of the psychological perception of the audience caused a revolution in film. Alfred Hitchcock for example mastered this effect throughout his career.
The best example for the sheer power of this method lies within Staley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this film, HAL9000 is a computer in charge of the spacecraft. This character consists of only a small camera lens and speaks in only a monotone, computer-like voice. This character therefore is incapable of showing any sort of emotion. The scene in which HAL is being killed off however has to be one of the saddest scenes in movie history. As HAL begs for his life in a monotone voice, we somehow end up thinking about our own death and our personal desire to live and learn. Instead of telling us how to feel Kubrick lets us infer it, allowing us to reflect on our own emotions and thoughts onto the character. Though this method is most commonly used in the direction of a film it can also be used to portray certain emotions. This method alone explains why performances such as Robert De Niro’s in The Godfather II, Anthony Hopkins’ in Silence of the Lambs, Daniel Day Lewis’ in There Will be Blood, or Ryan Gosling’s in Drive were some of the most gripping portrayals in film history.
Southpaw is a big blockbuster film, meant for a mass audience. We therefore cannot expect the same level of minimalism from Gyllenhaal in this film. To our surprise however Gyllenhaal does a fabulous job of not over-reacting to certain situations, letting us feel the emotions for ourselves. It is a tragic mistake to downplay Gyllenhall’s ability because of his celebrity status, as we do for so many others. We are indeed witnessing a virtuous actor who has studied his craft and whose work offers a course load of material to study. Though Southpaw isn’t a revolutionarily new movie, it is worth watching, simply to witness a future master at work.