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.
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Lopsided skid row neo-noir Cardboard Boxer starts off as a grim character study, then devolves into an unmoving melodrama about panhandler Willy (Thomas Haden Church), a desperate beggar who fights other vagrants for money.
At first, Willy’s dialogue-light encounters with angry winos, indifferent hotel managers, and disgusted working-class bystanders foreground his fears of dying alone. He spends most of his time writing confessional letters to the seven-year-old author (Elyse Cole) of a journal he finds in a dumpster. Willy also struggles to develop friendships with self-absorbed comrades, like pugnacious war vet Pinky (Boyd Holbrook) and callow bum-fight organizer J.J. (The Purge villain Rhys Wakefield).
But writer-director Knate Lee shifts gears and makes Willy’s happiness dependent on a canned confrontation with J.J. In order to make this tonal shift, Lee turns J.J., a misguided yuppie who believes that his relationship with Willy is mutually beneficial, into a mustache-twirling baddy. This is especially disappointing since Wakefield makes us believe that his character is sincere when he tells Willy that “it feels good to put money in your hands.”
Still, because J.J. is ultimately defined by his exploitative behavior, viewers are supposed to feel good about dismissing the only person who cares about Willy. By emphasizing the uglier aspects of his most complex character, Lee turns an otherwise down-to-earth slice-of-life drama into an unconvincing morality play.
“Can you read cursive?,” Willie, a denizen of skid row, asks strangers in Knate Lee’s new film, “Cardboard Boxer.” He needs their help deciphering the singed journal he retrieved from the debris of a fire. Its author, a child, received the diary from her dying mother.
It seems that Willie (Thomas Haden Church) and the girl have a lot in common. He wants her to know she is not alone, not the only one who fears thunder, draws stares and wishes for friends. He writes back, laboriously, with his stub of pencil, then launches his letters as paper airplanes from a Los Angeles rooftop.
Willie blossoms when he enters this child’s broken world, and he does make a friend, Pinky (Boyd Holbrook), a legless veteran who carries his treasured Purple Heart everywhere. Pinky consents to read the cursive script to Willie. They share the raw pain of the child’s descent from grief into hopelessness.
Willie’s own circumstances are enough to make you weep. He thinks nothing of leaning against a trash can as if it were a piece of furniture, or dipping into one to scoop up a half-eaten burger.
But while he may have a gentle soul, at times his innocence makes you wonder how he survives on the street. He steps forward, eager to please when rich kids show up with a video camera. They offer him $50, an arena where he can shine and a hollow promise of friendship. All he has to do is slug it out with another street person — and win.
Mr. Church fully inhabits the character, making the most of Willie’s dented moral sense and his many limitations. But the film constructs some too-perfect solutions to problems and manipulates our emotions. Mr. Lee, straining, ends up delivering a sentimentalism that undermines Mr. Church’s performance and this film’s promise.