The Good: Amazing performance by Thomas Hayden Church, Great direction, Decent character, Tone
The Bad: Embodies a strong sense of reality without theme or catharsis, Supporting characters are ill-defined.
The Basics: Thomas Hayden Church rules the screen with the understated epic of homelessness in America: Cardboard Boxer.
In modern American culture, there are few more monstrous constructs as bum fighting. Years ago, shows like American Dad! woke viewers up to the concept of bum fights. Rich, predominantly white, young people would hire homeless people to fight for their amusement and ridiculously small sums of money. The social and economic problems of homelessness and poor health care for the mentally ill have not dissipated and, sadly, neither has the reality that people with money continue to use the poor for their own craven desires, including bum fights. As Oscar Pandering Season hits its stride, one indie film is exploring the ugly phenomenon of bum fights. The movie is Cardboard Boxer what it lacks in duration and celebrity power, it makes up for in social message, direction and acting quality.
Arguably the last great movie that bothered to explore homeless issues was The Soloist (reviewed here!). Cardboard Boxer replaces Robert Downey Jr. with Thomas Hayden Church and Jamie Foxx with Terence Howard for star power, but Knate Lee's film is less about flash and more about substance. Cardboard Boxer is bleak and depressing, exactly as one might expect from a film about homelessness and exploitation. Writer and director Knate Lee does not strive to make a flashy movie and he succeeds; by the time Thomas Hayden Church as Willie delivers the line "I don't want to die alone," the viewer is thoroughly depressed.
Willie is a homeless man, living on the streets of Los Angeles, where there are people who go out of their way to ransack the homeless people in alleyways. After the latest attack, Pope - a man who formerly lived on the streets and now drives a cab - comes through and promises to look into the incident, loaning Willie a blanket to replace his stolen one. While dumpster diving, Willie finds a girl's diary and he uses what money he has to buy flashcards so he can learn how to read cursive handwriting to read the diary.
One night, some rich white kids roll into the neighborhood offer the clearly mentally ill brute Skillet $50 to fight anyone who will step up. Willie approaches the car, is attacked and knocks Skillet out, while J.J. and his friend film it. Willie uses the money to get a motel room for the night, where he cleans up, eats and watches television. Willie tries to help out a war veteran and a dog, but is frequently abandoned - though he helps Willie clean up one night by writing him a new sign. As time goes on and Willie continues to feel more and more despondent, J.J. brings an audience into the slum to pay Willie to fight for his amusement and that of his friends. When Skillet walks upon one of the fights, tragedy ensues.
Cardboard Boxer is a brilliant character study, even if it is a homogeneously depressing exploration of human sadness. While bum fights pop back up in the narrative, Cardboard Boxer is such an intense study of Willie and the war veteran Pinky that by the time J.J. returns to the film, the viewer has pretty much forgotten about the first fight.
Willie might well be Thomas Hayden Church's greatest on-screen role. In Cardboard Boxer, Church most frequently plays opposite a partially-burned diary accompanied by his own voiceovers. It's a tough thing to make that watchable; Church makes it riveting. Thomas Haden Church embodies Willie with minimal ticks and no flair, which nails home Knate Lee's point that Willie is like everyone who watches the film at the basic human level. Cardboard Boxer has Church working without his trademark smirk, scowling and mumbling through the role of Willie with heartbreaking precision. It is a shame that Cardboard Boxer will not draw enough attention in cinemas to get Church a much-deserved Oscar nomination.
Terrence Howard is vastly underused in the role of Pope and while Boyd Holbrook is good as Pinky, the role of Pinky is more a statement on the deplorable conditions war veterans suffer than a well-rounded, actualized character. Rhys Wakefield plays J.J. with an appropriately monstrous arrogance, but the role is basically a generic villain without any real subtlety or depth.
Cardboard Boxer is unrelenting in its tone and sense of realism and Knate Lee smartly minimizes the use of soundtrack in the film. Lee creates a film that is both beautiful and heartbreaking with Cardboard Boxer and I cannot recall a film in recent memory where a single shot truly stood out, like a powerful and memorable photograph; Cardboard Boxer has that in a shot of Willie in profile at a burn barrel fire after Pinky has abandoned him.
While Cardboard Boxer is supposed to lack flair to capture a sense of realism and tragedy, the film is unrelenting (just as life on the streets, homeless, is). But because there are no themes and no solutions within Cardboard Boxer, there is minimal entertainment value in the film. Cardboard Boxer is not intended to entertain, but rather educate, but I'm not sure who the intended audience is. Virtually everyone knows about homelessness and poverty as problems in the United States and the world, but most people are unable to personally tackle those problems themselves.
Knate Lee and Thomas Hayden Church are successful with Cardboard Boxer in getting viewers to stop and consider the desperate human cost behind poverty, homelessness, and exploitation, even if the film is unlikely to lead to any form of change.
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Whole Truth
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© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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