2006Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Helen Mirren, Stephen Dorff
wanted to love Shadowboxer; really, I did. It’s safe to say that my anticipation was pretty high going into the film, what with Lee Daniels, the producer of such darkly visionary works as Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, taking his first turn in the director’s chair. The cast was dotted with the names of such indie Old Reliables as Helen Mirren, Stephen Dorff, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and even offered the potential of Cuba “Show Me the Money!” Gooding, Jr.’s dramatic comeback. And finally, how could you not be intrigued by the plot description? A couple of hitmen, who also double as lovers and stepmother-and-son, have an attack of conscience and save their latest target, a pregnant woman, from the murderous designs of her gangster husband. The whole thing smacked of serious existential depth, but with guns and sex. And boxing, presumably.
Well, we get the guns and sex, but not so much the existential depth, which is disappointing but not inherently fatal (see also A History of Violence, which didn’t have nearly the thematic import it seemed to think it did but still functioned just fine as a decent modern noir). What is inherently fatal is this movie’s complete lack of coherence and quality control. What is supposed to be a grim exploration of the Evil That Men (and Women) Do is instead a ludicrously over-the-top spectacle of cartoonish characters, ham-handed symbolism, and visual garishness. The heroes (Gooding and Mirren) make moral choices that do not seem to arise organically out of their characters, but rather the contrived dictates of the screenplay. The villain (Dorff) appears to enjoy being evil for the sake of being evil, and is therefore impossible to take seriously (it’s one of this film’s few virtues that Dorff seems to realize the absurdity of his role and wisely plays most of it with a half-smile on his face). The omnipresent sex and violence veers wildly between unsettingly graphic and unintentionally hilarious, often within the same scene. Put bluntly, this film is a mess.
After giving it some careful thought (more than the film deserves, really), I think I’ve discerned what Daniels was aiming for here. Gooding and Mirren’s decision to save their assigned target and take the woman’s newborn baby into their care is meant to reflect the old filmmaking trope about families–namely, that those we make for ourselves, no matter how strange they may appear on the surface, tend to be far more meaningful than the ones we happen to be born into. While on the lam from the Dorff character, the two assassins, plus mother and child, actually carve out a nice little domestic idyll for themselves, although one that is destined to be temporary. Daniels, however, muddles this thematic point by tacking on an out-of-nowhere suggestion about the Darwinian nature of violence (shades again of Cronenberg)–the violence of the father is passed down to the son. This sudden veer into darkness is thoroughly underdeveloped, utterly unconvincing, and succeeds only in accommodating a final line of dialogue that is supposed to be heart-chillingly disturbing but instead provokes the biggest howls of derision in the entire film (and the competition for that dubious honor is strong).
The overall problem with Shadowboxer (apart from its screenplay, direction, and acting) is one that actually plagues many films of this genre. The dark independent film that tries to get at its thematic core through strange characters and eyebrow-raising plot developments (including decidedly non-mainstream sexual relationships and a reliance on overtly graphic violence) can be effective in jolting an audience out of its complacency and forcing it to consider its own assumptions. But if not handled properly, the film can deteriorate into a carnival-esque geek show, in which its “transgressions” exist purely for their own sake and succeed only in either alienating the audience or earning its scorn. Unfortunately, Shadowboxer is practically an advertisement for the latter category. This film, in addition to the bizarre Oedipal/hit man relationship at the narrative’s center, features a cross-dressing Cuba Gooding, Jr., a main character getting one of his fingers cut off with a pair of garden shears, Stephen Dorff anally violating a man with a splintered pool cue, and a subplot involving a young doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his 300-pound, crack-smoking nurse girlfriend (Mo’Nique) that appears to have been dumped on Shadowboxer from another, better movie.
To be clear, I don’t intrinsically object to any of those things. I just demand that they serve some kind of purpose, any kind of purpose, beyond their own existence. While watching Shadowboxer, one begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that Daniels and his screenwriter are throwing potentially fascinating and even cinematically revolutionary stuff into the movie for purposes that do not rise above naked exploitation. And that is a movie-making sin that we should not be willing to forgive. In his previous films, Daniels seemed to understand that better than anybody, which is why his occasionally harrowing material succeeded in revealing real truths about human nature. Indeed, I left the movie actually wanting to learn more about that young doctor and his plus-sized addict girlfriend. With their apparently co-dependent, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic relationship, the raw ingredients for a truly interesting film are sitting right there, in the middle of this decidedly less interesting movie. That film is something I could get excited about seeing. Lee Daniels could even produce it.
Shadowboxer is currently playing in limited release.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2006-08-01