In The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky gave us a protagonist so addicted to the narcissistic feed of public adoration that he destroyed relationships with both his estranged daughter and new girlfriend, eventually putting his own life at risk to get his fix. Now in The Fighter, David O. Russell shows us a dysfunctional family mired in pathological narcissism, with mother Alice and favorite son Dicky ruthless in their pursuit of attention and admiration.
A passel of obedient, undifferentiated daughters serves as Alice’s mirror, mostly echoing her opinions and taking her side in family disputes. Poor Micky, her other son, is desperately hungry for someone to care about him.
At the opening, it appears that a film crew is making a documentary about Dicky’s “comeback” as a boxer (though we later learn the film actually concerns crack addiction, with Dicky in the leading role of self-destructive loser). Unable to bear the truth about his failed life, Dicky conceals the actual subject of this documentary and Alice buys into his lies, showing up to one film session at the gym all dolled up and carrying her scrapbooks.
Dicky may be the blatant, hardcore addict, but Alice usually appears with a mixed drink or cigarette in hand and is as much an addict as he is, in her own way: they’re both desperate to be the center of attention, insistent that every event and emotional exchange be about themselves, ready to make ruthless use of family members in any way that feeds their self-centered view of life.
As matriarch, Alice controls the entire family, bossing her daughters and husband as well as (mis)managing Micky’s career and booking his matches. When a fighter in a scheduled match comes down with the flu, she agrees to the substitution of another boxer who outweighs Micky by 20 pounds, though he pleads with both his mother and brother-trainer to save him from slaughter. “You don’t fight, nobody gets paid,” he is told.
Neither Alice nor Dicky shows the least concern for Micky; all they want is the money, and the return of notoriety they lost when Dicky’s career went downhill. Others around Micky — his father, another trainer, a fight promoter — try to help Micky escape from this quagmire but he remains trapped within the family system. Only when Charlene, his new girlfriend, begins to stand up for him can he break the bonds and challenge his mother and brother’s exploitation of him.
In a tense scene with the entire family at hand, Micky (with Charlene’s support) finally tells them he has decided to discontinue training with Dicky and stop letting his mother manage his career; he’s moving to Las Vegas so he can train with another pro full-time. “I’m trying to figure out what’s best for me,” he tells them. Alice’s reaction is perfect. “That guy just wants to use you like a piece of toilet paper.”
The irony is too bitter to be funny. Then, her voice filling with emotion, she plays the guilt card: “I have done everything, everything I could for you, Micky.” Dicky, as usual, finds a way to make the conversation about himself and the opportunities he could have had. Only Charlene and George, his father, seem to have Micky’s interests at heart.
Later, when one of the daughter’s voices timid support for Micky’s decision, Alice turns on her in one of those horrible-funny moments that make you laugh and gasp at once. “Maybe Micky should try something different,” says the daughter. Alice gives her a vicious glare: “What are you doing opening your mouth in my kitchen? You owe me $200.” A perfect communication: You owe me for everything I’ve ever given you and that means you must never question my judgment and give me 100% support, even if I’m in the wrong.
With a mother this narcissistic, it’s no surprise Dicky turns out equally narcissistic, succumbing to lies and addiction when the public no longs feed his need. The narcissism is hereditary, transmitted from mother to son, with everybody else in the family in supporting roles.
How Micky breaks free from his narcissistic mother and brother and upsets the family dynamic is the subject for another post.
Photo by Meg Oram, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 11 Jan 2011