Remarkable Performances: Christian Bale and Matt Damon

Movies to see this holiday weekend

The Fighter
When Christian Bale plays “normal” people, I get less caught in his method. But in movies like The Machinist and Rescue Dawn, his performances feel more like stunts rather than true artistic expressions. So hearing he had shed a lot of weight for the role in The Fighter, I was wholly prepared to fixate on his hollowed cheekbones. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Bale gives one of the finest performances of the year.

The Fighter is the true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a professional boxer on his path to become a champion. After meeting Charlene (Amy Adams), he begins to question his family’s allegiance. He loves them, but realizes he can’t succeed with his brother — Dicky Eklund, a crack-addicted, relatively famous ex-boxer — as his coach. Or, his domineering mother (Melissa Leo) — who is more interested in Dicky’s career and keeping Micky close — as his manager.

The script and direction are sometimes unsurprising, and the fight scenes look flat and cheap (perhaps due to the lifeless black backdrops). But, the main event is the acting. Bale is amazing as the fast-talking, a-smile-for-everyone Dicky. Leo creates a vivid, crass matriarch that demands attention. (Every scene where she leads the gaggle of sisters is hysterical.) These performances, especially Bale’s, make The Fighter into something special. (In theaters.)

My Grade: B+

Oscar Watch: Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are locks for the Supporting Actor/Actress categories. Mark Wahlberg may join them in the Best Actor Category. Other possibilities include Best Picture, Best Director (David O. Russell) and Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams).

True Grit
The original True Grit, made in 1969, was the film that earned John Wayne his acting Oscar. It is an iconic film, not just for Wayne’s performance, but also as a representation of the great, dusty Westerns. It does seem an odd choice for the Coen brothers. Odd even for the creators of Fargo, A Serious Man, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because it isn’t an original film; it’s a remake. But of course, there doesn’t seem to be a genre they’ve met and haven’t liked. Or haven’t excelled in.

The plot is the same as the first film and the source novel by Charles Portis. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a 14-year-old girl looking to avenge her father’s murder. She hires crusty U.S. Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and they both begin pursuit of the murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) in Indian territory. Also in pursuit is Texas Ranger LaBouef (the deliciously pompous Matt Damon), who seeks Chaney for the death of a Texas senator.

The true genius of the Coen brothers is in their casting — highlighted by the discovery of Hailee Steinfeld. At just 14 years of age, she is a commanding presence. She imbues the articulate Mattie with surprising strength and unwavering focus. And she goes toe-to-toe with costars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, who both seem to relish their roles. Bridges especially. With the signature eye patch, puckered lips, and a marble-y drawl, he has fun with the curmudgeonly Rooster. There’s always a glint in his eyes. (Well, eye.)

In this sepia-colored world, spurs clink and guns are holstered. People say things like, “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements.” And the law is taken into one’s own hands. It is a slow burn of a movie that stays with you long after you leave the theater. It’s a movie with true grit. (In theaters.)

My Grade: A

Oscar Watch: Expect nominations for Best Picture, Director (the Coen brothers), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Hailee Steinfeld). Other possibilities include Best Actor (Jeff Bridges) and Best Supporting Actor (Matt Damon).