It’s official: Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors working today. He follows up last year’s pair of impeccable, surprising turns in Enemy and Nightcrawler with this powerhouse, body-altering performance as Billy Hope, a top boxer who, early in the film, steadily loses everything—his career and fortune, his self-control and dignity, and, most devastating, his young daughter, who is put into state care when he’s declared an unfit parent—after the sudden death of his cherished and grounding wife (Rachel McAdams).
A man of few words, Billy is largely left to communicate with his bulging muscles and pained expressions, and Gyllenhaal brings to the table the appropriate level of aggression, suffering, and, finally, forceful determination when his fallen fighter decides to rise back up in order to reclaim his daughter—not an easy task, in part because she’s clearly inherited his defiant nature.
Despite the occasional cliché (the too-perfect social worker, most glaringly), Southpaw is action-specialist Antoine Fuqua’s most solid work since 2001’s Training Day, and it also represents a return to form of sorts for Forest Whitaker, who is first-rate as the gym owner and fellow broken man Billy turns to in desperation.
And while the film’s main event may be Billy “The Great” Hope vs. the cruel world (and himself), there are also some impeccably choreographed fights in the ring as violent and heart-stopping as the emotional beating he takes.