It’s perfectly natural to want to find ways to grow in your craft. Someone who starts as an intern likely has their eyes on a manager’s seat, wanting to absorb as much as possible in order to get there faster. You get to make all the big decisions and earn all the big rewards. In the case of actors, taking on the role of director, well, that’s a different beast entirely. You’ve not only got to manage your actors, ensuring that what you see in your mind comes to fruition, but you also have to work with department heads, report to producers or studio personnel, answer millions of questions in response to the expected (or unexpected), and more. It’s not a comfy job, but some actors see it as an opportunity to stretch beyond their camera-facing responsibilities, to push themselves further than before. Oscar-winning actor Halle Berry takes on this challenge in her directorial debut, sports drama Bruised, in which she also stars. Bruised will be familiar to sports film enthusiasts narratively, but it does offer a focus on generational trauma via the specific Black lens which is rarely seen or addressed. This is not set dressing either, but a core component which enables Berry the opportunity to develop her voice as a director.
Four years ago Jackie Justice (Berry) was a premiere MMA fighter before a particularly vicious bout sent her reeling. Now, she cleans people’s homes and lives with her boyfriend/manager Desi (Adan Canto) while just trying to make it through the day, desperate to put her fighter’s life behind her. All of this changes for her when a series of unplanned events not only put her on the path to get back in the ring, they also reunite her with her estranged son, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.). Suddenly Jackie isn’t just getting back in the ring for herself, now it is an effort to make things right, giving her a fire she hasn’t had in a long time.
Let’s start with the known and work our way to the unknown.
Berry is an accomplished actor, able to handle any genre. It’s always been my interpretation that she’s an actor who leads from empathy, finding the emotion within the character to create the performance. This is no different with Jackie, a character who is a has-been by MMA standards, yet is just as capable as those without the four-year performance gap. She’s an underdog not because she doesn’t have the goods, but because of what she refused to deal with and, by running, has found herself falling into one trap after another. Rather than pitying her, through Berry’s performance, we see the shades of hubris and sorrow, the fire of life still flickering behind her eyes, as Jackie struggles within the cycle she’s created. More from the performance than from script, Berry conveys a sense that Jackie is firmly aware that her situation is of her own making, she’s just too scared to face things in order to change her circumstance. She’s not an underdog because she hasn’t had a chance, she’s an underdog because she made herself one. This presents a fantastic actor’s challenge: can you defeat an enemy when it’s yourself? As expected, for each step forward, there’s a step back to overcome and each one is sold entirely by Berry via a compelling performance.
What’s particularly fascinating about Bruised is the unique perspective it offers. Ordinarily, sports dramas are written or directed by men and focus on men (the most famous example being Rocky (1976) from writer/actor Sylvester Stallone and director John G. Avildsen) whereas Bruised is entirely crafted from the female perspective. Written by first-time feature screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb and directed by Berry, Bruised is unique in how it approaches every conflict and every victory. The film doesn’t pursue glory by achieving some kind of external validation by masculine standards, it’s about redemption through personal responsibility and the pitfalls that come with trying to do the right thing perhaps too late. The conflict within Jackie isn’t one of lack of talent or ability, a stark contrast from other sports dramas wherein the protagonist must train to become ready to battle their opponent (see: every Rocky or Creed montage), but a matter of psychology. Rosenfarb’s script slowly presents Jackie as we think we know her before slowly revealing that she is as she is due to choices both of her own and others’ making. It’s that the resulting trauma has gone unacknowledged or unaddressed which has lead Jackie to where she is now. A weak area of the script, though, is that it speeds its way into setting up Jackie and drops in various character conflicts related to the trauma, but doesn’t address them directly beyond vocal sparing. There’s no resolution of any kind for her personally, which chafes a bit if you view the film in a traditional sense. However, if you view it as a rebirth, then the film merely captures the beginning of something new, something unfinished and full of possibilities.
In doing some research for this review, I found that actor/director Nick Cassavetes (Alpha Dog) was originally intended to direct with actor Blake Lively (The Rhythm Section) to star. Undoubtedly that would’ve been a vastly different film, especially when learning via a Critics Choice member Q&A featuring Berry that changes were made to the script upon her taking on the project. (One such change was making Boyd Jr.’s character Manny mute, allowing for a physical manifestation of his trauma to be explored alongside Jackie’s.) Though I wouldn’t use any hyperbolic language to describe Bruised, you can certainly tell it was (a) directed through the feminine lens and (b) it plays to Berry’s strengths. Whereas male-centric films highlight the musculature of the performers, allowing for a variety of angles for their bodies to by ogled, Bruised lacks that sensation entirely. Jackie is dressed as any athlete training in the winter of New Jersey might train, the camera capturing the movements without sexualizing the actors. Even when Jackie reenters the fighting octagon, the camera never lingers on any shot which doesn’t serve the conflict inherent in the combat at play (physically or psychologically). Similarly, depictions of intimacy are about the connection between the people, not for the audience to bear witness, removing all notions of gratuity. Similarly, when capturing moments between characters, there’s a tightness to the shots where it’s rarely a full-body view unless showing someone walking with Manny, thereby requiring the camera to pull back; otherwise, there’re lots of mid-range and close-ups. The close-ups, in particular, tend to have a tight focus on the person speaking, the background slightly faded, indicating exactly where we, the audience, should be looking. As this is Jackie’s story, I began to notice that this specific technique of fading the background almost entirely happens when Jackie is talking with someone, but especially when talking with Manny, indicating just how much she is shifting her perspective to focus entirely on him. Their relationship is a complex one, which the script and Berry handle beautifully so that the pay-off lands, giving the conclusion of the film a resonance it may not have otherwise. Using the direction to indicate Jackie’s psychological view of others isn’t something you’d expect from a directorial debut, but it makes a great deal of sense given Berry’s extraordinary character work as an actor.
All said and done, while Bruised doesn’t deliver on all it promises, Berry absolutely makes an impression by making something quiet out of a story that’s often quite loud. It’s usually full of masculine bombast and posturing, something Rosenfarb is quick to highlight as the toxicity of that kind of masculinity is far more reductive than it is uplifting. In this regard, Berry and Rosenfarb plant the kind of mini-bombs that bear out interpersonal conflict that will shake you just enough to not lose faith in Jackie and keep you rooting for her until the end. Of course, I can’t end this review without mentioning Stephen McKinley Henderson (Dune; Lady Bird) who brings a respectful gravitas to his role as cornerman, Sheila Atim (Twelfth Night) as trainer Buddhakan who shouldn’t be ignored come Best Supporting Actor time, and Danny Boyd Jr. who communicates so naturally physically that I wanted to scoop him up like I do my own kids in an attempt to comfort his ailing Manny. Not all actors-turned-directors allow their cast moments to shine, but Berry does and, in so doing, creates a strong ensemble atmosphere that makes Bruised memorable.
In select theaters November 17th, 2021.
Available for streaming on Netflix November 24th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.