If you’re searching for a vivid cinematic portrayal of enmeshed and dysfunctional family dynamics, look no further than David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010), with Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo in a knock-out performance as Alice, matriarch of a large Irish-American clan.
Early in the movie, we meet the entire family at a bar in Lowell, Massachusetts. In addition to the two brothers, Dickie and Micky, there’s a large number of sisters; I was never clear on the exact number or their names. While at times, there appear to be five of them, bringing the total number of siblings to seven, Alice later says she has given birth to nine children. And although this scene supposedly explains the family geneology (children by two different fathers), the exact relationships and identities remain confusing — an effective symbol for the “undifferentiated family ego mass,” as Murray Bowen would have described it. Apart from Alice, no one has a significant other; Dickie and Micky are both divorced while the single daughters function almost as one unit.
As Micky tries to differentiate himself and separate from this claustrophobic family, Director Russell gives us wonderful scenes that portray both the fused nature of identities within the family as well as the group’s power to block separation. In that early bar scene, Micky sits apart from the rest of his family, watching bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) as he works up the nerve to ask her out. His physical separation demonstrates his wish to move away from the family though the pull of the group is palpable.
Later, once he has decided to discontinue training with his brother and let someone other than his mother manage his career, Micky must confront the entire family en masse.
It’s a visually frightening scene, with Charlene holding tight to Micky’s arm as the family mobilizes around and against them. Alice, backed up by the chorus-like echoes of her daughters, exerts enormous pressure on Micky in order to thwart his attempt to separate.
In particular, she attacks Charlene as the agent of change, belittling her as an “MTV girl” and telling Micky he can trust only his family. In a follow-up scene, there’s a horrible-hilarious moment on Charlene’s front porch when Alice and her daughters mobilize in an effort to neutralize Charlene and end up in a fist-fight.
Alice’s prime ally throughout the film is her eldest son Dickie rather than her husband George, whom she continually attempts to marginalize and make weak with contempt and ridicule. Alice and Dickie have a creepy, quasi-romantic relationship, beautifully captured in two scenes. In the first, she tracks Dickie down (yet again) to a shabby crack-house and angrily confronts him as he attempts to flee out the back window. Moments later, in her parked car out front, he “woos” her with a crooning version of “I Started a Joke.”
Eventually Alice’s hurt and anger fade, she joins in with Dickie and the two drive off singing together into the distance. In the second scene when Dickie is released from prison, Alice brings his son to await him at the prison gates, as if she’s the long-suffering wife awaiting her husband’s return. Their reunion echoes scenes from other films where husband and wife, long-separated, at last reunite.
As discussed in my earlier post, in order to become an individual, Micky must break free of his mother’s narcissistic control of the family. What he wants more than anything else is to have a real mother: “I thought you were my mother, too,” he tells her when she’s trying to coerce him back into the family fold, with Dickie as his trainer.
Alice appears to relent and apologizes, promising to be better. Maybe it’s me, but the way she enfolds Micky in her arms feels seductive, akin to the way she relates to her oldest son. I doubt she’s learned anything new, about herself or her children. Rather she is attempting to shift allegiance and join with her more successful son, a more effective narcissistic feed, as he prepares for his world-championship match.
Dickie, storming out at that point, seems to experience her comforting of his brother in just that way, as if she has abandoned him.
In a slightly Hollywood ending, Director Russell would have us believe Nicky’s success in the ring, and his individuation from the family, has a positive transformative effect on both his brother and mother. While it’s true that changes by individual members inevitably affect family dynamics, I have a hard time believing that anyone could truly achieve sufficient velocity to escape this mother’s narcissistic orbit; in reality, Micky’s success would merely be incorporated into the family dynamic and used to feed Alice’s relentless need to be the center of attention.