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Jake Gyllenhaal fights for Oscar attention in “Southpaw”

Southpaw Jake Gyllenhaal

Over the last week or so, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Southpaw just became his main shot at Oscar attention. Part of that has to do with people seeing his film, which opens on Friday, but most of it has to do with one of his other 2015 releases being pushed back. That one is the drama Demolition, so this boxing flick is his primary chance, unless Everest becomes a big player. As for the movie itself, it’s a solid sports drama, mainly elevated by Gyllenhaal, who delivers yet another outstanding performance. At this point, he might just be the most consistent and interesting actor in Hollywood.

Southpaw is a boxing drama about Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) a champion who has fought his way to the top and has it all. A loving wife (Rachel McAdams), a cute daughter (Oona Laurence), millions, and a championship belt, to boot. Then, tragedy strikes and absolutely everything that he knows comes crashing down. An orphan as a child, he grew up with nothing and is headed that way again, until he’s aided by a trainer (Forest Whitaker) who can see the heart within Billy. Antoine Fuqua directs, Kurt Sutter penned the screenplay, and the supporting cast includes Curtis Jackson (better known as 50 Cent), Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Miguel Gomez, Rita Ora, and more. Sure, the plot is generic, but Gyllenhaal more than makes it work.

Gyllenhaal is really strong here. Not only is this a tremendous physical transformation, but he completely changes his acting style. Sure, he’s as immersive as ever, but he’s strong delivery of language and charisma is exchange for a brooding physicality. He’s playing a reformed punk, and boy does he play it well. You believe him as a boxer, fully. The rest of the cast is solid enough, with McAdams especially leaving a bit of a mark in her supporting role, but Gyllenhaal is the one you really leave Southpaw buzzing about. Without him, I do think it wouldn’t have worked as well. Originally it was supposed to star Eminem, and oh man would there have been a difference.

Awards wise, this is probably Best Actor or bust for Gyllenhaal. I mean, in some version of the upcoming precursor season, it’s possible that Best Picture becomes a possibility, but outside of Best Supporting Actress (for McAdams), the only other thing worth mentioning here is Best Original Song. The aforementioned Eminem contributed songs, and he is an Oscar winner, after all. The focus is, and should be, on Gyllenhaal though. He’s an Academy Award nominee now considered overdue for a win, especially after the Nightcrawler snub last year. Demolition had seemed like this vehicle to me previously, but now this is more likely than Everest. Honestly, I think another snub might be more likely than Southpaw getting him in for Best Actor, but we shall see. There’s a chance, no doubt about that. I suppose if the film catches on this summer, it’ll sustain buzz until the precursors get underway. Then, anything is possible, as we all know.

Overall, Southpaw is the sort of boxing drama that checks all of the cliched marks of the genre, but in a gritty way that manages to mostly work. Without question, Gyllenhaal is the one would elevates the material and makes sure that it’s something to see, but the bones aren’t made of dust. The foundation is solid, just he happens to be the MVP. If you’re a Gyllenhaal fan, you owe it to yourself to see this one. Whether or not it becomes an Academy player, it’s worth checking out. Contender, pretender, or something in between (and we’ll find out which this is in the coming months), it has one of the year’s best performances so far contained within…

Be sure not to miss Southpaw, in theaters everywhere this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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