Film Review: Cardboard Boxer

Emotionally powerful, unsentimental drama of a homeless man in downtown L.A., built around a subtle and heartbreaking performance by Thomas Haden Church and Terrence Howard in a small but charismatic supporting role.
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On a harsh night in iffy downtown Los Angeles, one homeless person asks another if those big metal barrels with a fire going inside, so that the down-and-out can warm their hands, really exist or if that's just a movie image. That moment well signals how the independent drama Cardboard Boxer paints an unromanticized picture of street people, depicting them as neither objects of pity nor as noble outcasts but as ordinary citizens with some fatal flaw—addiction, mental issues, the specifics don't matter—who for understandable self-defense reasons mostly just threaten each other and tell each other to go away. In one beautifully telling moment that underlines the subtle observation of star Thomas Haden Church, his homeless character Willie averts his gaze and looks down at the ground when two pretty girls pass, lest he be accused of staring at them and getting in trouble.

Church, who is also one of the executive producers, indeed grounds the film and perhaps even saves it at times from writer-director Knate Lee's heartfelt but occasionally fabulist tendencies. Willie, who seems in his mid-50s but could be in his mid-40s because of a hard life, has little backstory; we know his father died when he was young and that he can read but that he can't read cursive handwriting. Yet Church—who in a peripatetic career jumps from running commercial cattle ranches to playing supporting roles in studio films like Daddy's Home (2015) and We Bought a Zoo (2011) and lead roles in indie films and in the upcoming HBO series "Divorce"—has always been a fascinating actor, all the way back to his eccentric airplane mechanic Lowell Mather in the 1990s sitcom "Wings." His granite face and inquiring eyes evoke both stoic cowboy Americana and childlike wonder, a rare, seemingly oxymoronic combination that sums up Willie. Slow-witted but not a Steinbeckian Lennie Small, and soulful in spite of himself, he lives his days scavenging for thrown-out food, trying to stay safe at night in a large cardboard box, and sometimes climbing to a nearby rooftop to look out at the city.

He is, to take a phrase from Taxi Driver, God's lonely man, and when he discovers, in a dumpster of debris from a building fire, the diary of a second-grade girl whose mom has died, he finds himself. Maybe she died in the fire—who knows? But Willie sees himself in the girl, who has gone to live, unloved, with a hard-hearted uncle who berates her, and who is invisible to her classmates. It is a hard thing to hear that a child wants to die, as she confesses in one entry, and Willie, empathizing, writes pen-pal notes he forms into paper airplanes and sets sailing to her, he likes to imagine, from that rooftop.

Willie finds more solid solace in new-found friend Pinky (Boyd Holbrook), a double-amputee war veteran with a Purple Heart, and in "friend" J.J. (Australian actor Rhys Wakefield), a college-age wannabe "bum fight" kingpin who pays the formidable Willie 50 bucks to box other volunteers so wiped out by life they figure they have nothing to lose. Occasionally keeping watch over the homeless is cab driver Pope (a magnetic and mesmerizing Terrence Howard).

With sculpted, often chiaroscuro lighting in night scenes, effective music and a wealth of top-notch performances, Cardboard Boxer is a handsome production—all the more admirable since first-time feature writer-director Lee comes out of production roles on projects like the prank/stunt movies Jackass 3D (2010) and Bad Grandpa (2013), under the name Knate Gwaltney. Cardboard Boxer doesn't have a lot of forward momentum, which maybe reflects the aimlessness of the street people's days without putting an artificial structure on it or maybe shows a slackness in the script. Yet the movie is nonetheless filled with grace notes, making you see, without hitting you over the head, the way a hotel room with a shower can be heaven, and being able to sit in bed safe and clean and watch TV can be a miracle.

A couple of housekeeping notes: Despite what IMDb says, Marlo Thomas does not appear, and the filmmaker is credited onscreen as Knate Lee and not Knate Gwaltney.

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