The Fighter, interestingly enough, was originally supposed to be directed by Darren Aronofsky as a kind of sequel-in-spirit to The Wrestler. Instead, it was directed by David O. Russell, arguably for the better. I say this not because I don't think Aronofsky would have made a terrible movie, but because it doesn't immediately fit into the Aronofsky filmography thematically. Russell, however, brings it to vibrant life, mainly by choosing to focus less on the actual boxing matches and more on the behind-the-scenes family dynamics. And those dynamics are potent. Mickey wants to please his family, but the film suggest that his family - Alice, Dicky, and the gaggle of big-haired sisters - are the reason he's not a successful boxer. Charlene suggests this, followed by his father (a terrific Jack McGee), and the resulting battle between the two sides gives for some powerful emotional moments.
Which brings me to Wahlberg's excellent performance, which has been derided by many for being blank or stilted. I want to argue a defense for it. Wahlberg is indeed a little "blank" in this film, but I believe there are two reasons for this. The first is that his performance is not nearly as dynamic, explosive, and attention-grabbing as those of the people surrounding him. Christian Bale has once again dropped an astonishing amount of weight for his role, but he completely disappears into Dicky, giving an amazing performance that, when the real Dicky appears during the credits, you can hardly tell the difference. Melissa Leo reaches delicious heights as Alice, the overbearing matriarch of the clan that just can't let go control of her son(s), especially not to another woman. And Amy Adams is gloriously against type, bringing a roughness, malice, and unexpected sexuality to the role; her monologue towards the end of the film (no spoilers here, sorry) is one of the finest moments in film this year. And then there are the locals of Lowell, who bring a unique flavor to the film and make it seem all the more realistic.
The second reason Wahlberg's performance might be considered lesser is that Mickey, the story suggests, doesn't really have an identity of his own. There are only a few moments when the "real" Mickey comes through, such as when he wants to quit boxing or is forced to choose between his family and Charlene. But for the most part, Mickey is a man who's defined by the choices everyone around him makes for him, which makes the film's finale one of the more interesting "triumphant" endings for a sports film: is this what Mickey really wants, and how much of the credit actually goes to him? Therefore I justify Wahlberg's performance by saying that Mickey really is blank, a block of marble being carved by the various sculptors that are his family. In that light, Wahlberg's portrayal is bold and fascinating, not "blank."
The Fighter is a study of family dynamics disguised as a sports film. Its an interesting portrait of a man who has little control of his own life, and a pretty terrific film to boot.