Yes, I know, genteel church folks are not likely to want to watch a boxing movie.  We see that old rugged sport as too violent, and we don't wish to encourage it, lest we somehow further its brutality.  And there's no question that the fight sequences in “Southpaw” are extremely realistic, and it appears that the participants are really taking a bloody beating.  Which is actually a testimony to the unique gruesome ballet of the world's oldest mayhem (see Cain and Abel, Genesis 4).

            Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen, a very rough neighborhood in New York City, and was raised in an orphanage, where he met his lovely wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), when they were both 12. 

            Billy discovers as a teenager that he has the quickness and athleticism to excel in the boxing ring.  He isn't afraid of being hurt;  in fact, he says the harder he's hit, the greater his motivation to hit back.  He's a counterpuncher and a brawler, whereas most light heavyweights rely more on finesse, slipping punches and keeping their opponents off balance with left jabs and foot speed.  He pummels people, but he takes a lot of hits, too.  Maureen is beginning to worry that the cumulative effect of all those head shots is going to make him “punch drunk” in a couple of years, and she's already encouraging him to quit, even though he's just now ascended to the pinnacle of his profession:  the light heavyweight champion of the world.

            Billy has the big mansion, the fancy car, and an entourage of his old buddies from “the 'hood”---and a daughter whom he adores, Alice (Clare Foley), but he just calls her “baby,” even though she's nine years old.  Maureen and Billy and Alice are a close family, loving and supportive, and so far they've kept the demons at bay about Billy's drinking bouts, because Maureen is so good at covering for him.  But then when Maureen's out of the picture, everything else falls apart for Billy.  Suddenly broke, he signs a contract for a fight where he's so ill-prepared he embarrasses himself.  He crashes his car, and then his house and possessions are re-possesed.  His agent quits him, and so does the entourage whom he can't pay anymore.  He hits bottom when he loses custody of his daughter to Child Protective Services, and he has to humble himself to take a job cleaning up an old gym, presided over by the crusty curmudgeon and sometime trainer Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker).

            We all know what's going to happen:  Billy eventually begins to recover himself, and “Tick” becomes an unlikely mentor, mainly because what they both need right now is a true friend.  Clean and sober and hungry for redemption now, Billy Hope begins to re-discover the satisfaction of training hard and preparing himself to do what he does best:  fight.  Oh, and “Tick” even teaches him some new technique, including blocking punches, and occasionally switching the lead foot, and going “southpaw” in his approach (hence the title).

            Of course the way back isn't easy.  His daughter, once sweet and loving, is now angry and withdrawn, and at times won't even agree to his supervised visits in her children's home.  But something in Billy Hope won't give up, even when he's knocked down, either in the ring or outside of it.  That's what makes him who he is.  And that's why we root for him, even though he's a flawed character.

            Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic in this role, and he's surrounded by a couple of tremendous supporting performances, by Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker.  This film transcends the pugilist genre to become a movie about recovering yourself when you're down.  Most of us know something about how hard that is to do.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When you've had your setbacks, how did you manage to recover?  Who helped you, and who didn't?

2)                  The sudden death of a loved one is a very difficult to blow to overcome.  How do you begin to recover?

3)                  When have you had difficulty relating to your own child?  What can be done to restore that relationship?

4)                  Should boxing be banned?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman, Texas