Last week saw the release of Denis Villeneuve’s somber science-fiction film Arrival in the (literal) wake of Hilary Clinton’s defeated campaign. It’s an eerily humanistic plea that sought for diplomacy above all, and was the kind of solemn exercise that can prove comforting. This week, however, with the release of Ben Younger’s Bleed for This, we confront a heady reality of Great White Anxiety and rejuvenated hyper-individualism. Detailing the story of 1980s boxer Vinny Pazienza, Bleed for This does not merely acknowledge but embraces its totems of white male privilege, bluntly and without irony treating male egocentrism as virtue. This is a film that will rub many the wrong way, just as it will likely become another beacon of hypermasculine admiration for the “silent majority”.
On the end of his rope with his promoters knotting a noose, Pazienza (Miles Teller) is sent to his alcoholic trainer Kevin (Aaron Eckhart) to prepare for what is anticipated to be his last fight. It’s not, as one would expect, with the perceived gamble of moving Pazienza up a couple of weight classes paying off. He becomes a world champion, though the jubilation is short lived as he gets into a car accident that breaks his neck. Opting against evasive spinal fusion surgery, the boxer favors wearing a cervical spine brace, or halo, to correct the injury.
Younger doesn’t cushion his obvious imagery, valorizing his protagonist to near biblical proportions. For what it’s worth, Younger displays a primal sensitivity to the personal flogging that Pazienza endures, taking a measured look into the halo procedure itself where medieval screws are driven into the boxer’s cranium. Compounded with a soundscape filled with such bone-crushing palpability, Younger convincingly places the viewer as spectator to physical abuse.
But Bleed for This is a film concerned with exteriors, about the damages and bruising that can be perceived outwardly. With Pazienza’s childhood home littered with tokens of Catholicism and elephant figurines nestled side by side, there’s not much to plunder here: this is one of those films where what you see is what you get, with an almost active resistance toward intellectualism or symbolic reading. Such shallowness renders much of the picture ineffectual and flaccid as a commentary on Pazienza’s career. Rather, Younger clears through numerous passages of Pazienza’s life, whereby doctors, family, and onlookers contribute to his recovery and boxing pursuits, only to have Pazienza perplexingly dismiss their efforts in a closing scene that comes across as a shocking outlier in an otherwise cliché-driven film.
The picture’s end sees Pazienza, a newly minted champion that successfully “overcomes the odds”, primed for an interview, where he’s asked about hurdles and difficulties of his comeback. His epiphany is a curious one, and initially antithetical to what you’d expect: he expresses resentment for those who doubted him and feels no debt to those who helped him along the way. This ME-generation response befits the late 1980s period, but is proffered not with a sense of antagonism but almost… reverence? It’s matter-of-fact and blunt, much like everything that preceded it, leading you to believe that this sort of hypermasculine selfishness is, indeed, a virtue. For the next four (eight?) years, I suppose Younger et al. just might be right.