If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.
I think perhaps the one downside of my devotion to the Rocky series and failure to see stuff like Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby is that I've got it locked in my head that all boxing movies are feel good and follow a very strict and repetitive arc, so The Fighter was something I didn't even realize how much I needed. There are few things quite as satisfying than a film about physical brutality done in a way that it becomes art, and The Fighter is this and more. It's an even-handed but dramatic representation of the painful and addictive yet somehow beautiful relationship professional fighters have with their sport, but also an incredibly stark and honest portrayal of the dual toxicity and love in some families.
The major buzz about The Fighter is mostly about Christian Bale's performance as Dicky Ecklund, the former pride of Lowell who threw away a potentially bright future for drugs and now trains his brother while mostly ignoring his own demons. It's a dynamite turn that takes Bale away from his great but somewhat shallow action roles of the last several years and reminds us this cat can flat out act. As is his hallmark, Bale completely loses himself in Dicky, relying on all his physical and psychological mastery of drama to flicker intensely between glee, rage, desperation, depression and a range of other emotions while always coming back to a point of incredible charisma where you believe that no matter how broken down this guy is, his brother and family aren't wrong to believe in him completely. That you find yourself wondering right up through the end of the film how conscious Dicky truly is of his mistakes and whether he's legitimately happy for his brother's success--there are so many little moments where his words say he is but his eyes betray an uncertainty--is a testament to Bale's amazing job.
Comparatively, Mark Wahlberg had the difficult job of playing the more down-to-earth Micky and had to know going in that despite being the star of the movie he was going to be overlooked by a lot of people when put next to Bale; he responds by giving an unselfish and professional performance that holds the narrative together and allows his co-stars to really stretch while he takes responsibility for keeping the story grounded.
Speaking of talented co-stars, Amy Adams is absolutely terrific playing against type as Charlene, Micky's foul mouthed and bad ass girlfriend who is attempting to liberate him from what she feels is the corrupting influence of his family. I was a bit weary at times that Charlene seems to bulldoze really abruptly into Micky's life and take control, but there are totally women like that and Adams really sold it. Melissa Leo was also phenomenal as Alice, the matriarch of the Ecklund/Ward clan which also includes seven daughters; her fierce protectiveness of her kids, unending love for screw-up Dicky, and well-played obliviousness to her older son's issues and younger son's sense of neglect made for a memorable character. Jack McKee also entertained the heck out of me as Micky's dad while I had no idea that Micky O'Keefe, the younger Micky's put-upon trainer, was a normal dude playing himself! And good lord were those seven sisters fantastic as both comic relief and the Greek chorus!
So many memorable scenes, an awesome soundtrack, great boxing sequences and even the prerequisite montage--I could not ask for much more. The ending did feel a bit abrupt, but this was all based on a real story, so they were a bit handcuffed there, and besides, I think it was really just that I could have watched another half hour.