Had potential to be a serviceable family/sports drama, even with the overused convention of feuding brothers; but the filmmakers don’t try hard enough, with characters barely developed beyond genre boundaries.
The exact words used to describe Brawler are, “Based on true events,” and for all I know, this is the case. I haven’t been able to authenticate the claim, though. All I have to go on are the words of writer/director Chris Silvertson and star/story creator Nathan Grubbs, who both say that the film is drawn from local Louisiana legend. But let’s not make this about how true or untrue a story happens to be. Let’s instead make this about the film in and of itself, founded on the age-old cliché of pitting family members against each other in a fight to the finish. The recent releases of The Fighter and Warrior have greatly diminished the impact feuding brothers once had on me, especially since both involved caged fighting matches (the former boxing, the latter MMA). And don’t get me started on the fact that both films were highly overrated.
Brawler tells the story of New Orleans natives Charlie and Bobby Fontaine (Grubbs and Marc Senter), both of whom take part in underground fights organized by the mob. Charlie, who by day makes a living as a construction worker, is not only respected but is also sensible and disciplined about fighting – which is ironic given the fact that, by and large, underground fights have no rules. Bobby, on the other hand, is self-absorbed, reckless, impulsive, hotheaded, and defiant of authority. This includes his brother, who always tries and fails to guide him in the right direction. A gambler and a drug addict, Bobby has outstanding debts with various shady people, which means, of course, that a group of thugs will break into his house with the intent of beating the living crap out of him. Charlie intervenes at the last second, and although he wards the thugs off, he also gets his knee smashed.
Charlie’s wife, Kat (Pell James), is herself an alcoholic and a cocaine user. I honestly don’t know if she remains an addict throughout the film or if she briefly gets on the wagon and then falls off again; that aspect of the plot is oddly murky, perhaps because her character is given such little screen time. What I do know is that, for someone who obviously loves his wife, Charlie’s tepid remarks about her drinking suggest either that he doesn’t know the full extent of her problems or that he doesn’t care. With this on the table, how are we supposed to react when she asks him, “Do you know how good you made my life? Do you know how easy it is to hate you for that?” It’s a thought-provoking line, but it’s wasted in this particular movie, which not only doesn’t go deep enough with its dramatic subtexts but is to a large degree hopelessly predictable.
When Bobby needs to crash at Charlie’s place, presumably because it’s too dangerous for him to go home, he and Kat inevitably get to the point at which they kiss and start to have sex. Given the fact that the Louisiana heat leaves them both rather scantily clad, how could one expect anything less? In Kat’s defense, she shared the bottle of booze Bobby had with him and was probably too drunk to completely realize what she was doing. Nevertheless, Charlie busts in on them, again at the last second, and immediately gets into a bare-knuckle brawl with Bobby, one that literally crashes through the from door and extends onto the sidewalk. Neighbors separate the two just as Charlie decrees that he and his brother should settle their differences in a fight. Bobby, being such an angry SOB, is more than happy to oblige.
And so on and so forth. Predictability aside, the amateurish production values do little to add credibility to the quieter, more dramatic scenes; the shots are often framed as they would be in a home movie, and the volume is so low that you strain to hear what the actors are trying to say. Surprisingly, this ultra low-budget approach works well for the fight scenes, for it adds an appropriately raw edge. It helps that the punches, jabs, kicks, and hooks lack the sophisticated choreography one would expect from an A-level Hollywood production or a martial arts movie. That, coupled with the loose handheld camerawork, makes it seem as if we’re watching real fighting instead of a stunt spectacular. This isn’t to suggest that touches of manufactured drama aren’t included. The last minute or so of the final battle, which I will refrain from describing, exemplify this.
Most movies would end with the final battle. But Brawler goes one step further by examining the aftermath. It seemed like a good idea … that is, until the last scene, which unfairly leaves the audience hanging. There’s a world of difference between intentional narrative ambiguity and not seeing something through to the end, and it’s the latter category this movie falls in to. I’ll be the first to admit that Brawler had the potential to be a serviceable family/sports drama, even with the overused convention of feuding brothers in a fighting ring. But the filmmakers don’t try hard enough; the characters weren’t developed beyond genre boundaries, the overall look of the film was substandard even for a small-budgeted indie, and the lack of a proper resolution made the ending immensely unsatisfying. Maybe it would have been best to keep its true story claims to a minimum.