Sometimes, when an actor makes their directorial debut, it’s to tell the world something about themselves they’ve been unable to get across in the films they’ve made for others. For her first feature behind the camera, Halle Berry has chosen a story about family and fighting and sexuality and the needs of children in an indifferent world. The movie, Bruised, is as physical as her studio blockbusters, but also as edgy and wrenching as some of the indies she’s made over the course of her career.
Berry has cast herself as Jackie Justice, a one-time UFC fighter who fled a championship match mid-bout. (Here one is reminded that if a character’s last name is an attribute or concept, it will prove to be a major theme throughout.) Jackie is now a housecleaner forced to deal with the whims of people with lots of money and little respect for boundaries.
Fortunately, Jackie is soon presented with a possible path back to professional fighting—and also to Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), the now-6-year-old son she left behind, mute and deprived of positive attention. We have, of course, seen the narrative of a meat-rock learning tenderness before. Far too often, though, it’s just a means of humanizing some Olympian abstraction, not someone as emotionally complex (some might say “fucked up”) as Jackie.
Every scene is suffused with the threat of violence, and not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing in inspirational sports dramas. Bruised deploys domestic confrontations like tentpole action movies do explosions. Some of them can be traced to an ain’t-shit boyfriend/manager (Adan Canto). But there’s also Jackie’s mother, Angel (Adriane Lenox), introduced and defined for the audience as spending her days “popping pills and selling wigs.” Angel is just as bad for Jackie and little Manny as the ain’t-shit boyfriend/manager, but she’s a lot more fun in the run-up. Her wig game is on point.
Berry, sporting dreads and big, fraught emotions, navigates the many worlds of Newark like a phantom defined by her flesh. Bruised is an apt title, given the amount of discolored tissue Jackie carries around. But the tactility goes beyond sweat and blood. For all the film’s violence, it’s lit with grace—a rough and tumble chiaroscuro heart provided by cinematographer Frank DeMarco, known for his staggering work in the films of John Cameron Mitchell.
Berry the director/producer also excels at mood, oftentimes adopting a constructivist approach to set the scene, relying on the audience’s reptilian brain to map the space from the details that introduce it. There are moments that speak volumes, like the one where Jackie snags a cigarette in the toilet, the exhaust fan keeping others from knowing her business, finding an oasis of peace by whatever means available. And there’s a lot to appreciate in a film that occasionally deploys Dutch angles to indicate recent head trauma. Not that Bruised lands all its blows. Berry sets a mournful cleaning montage to an orchestral cover of “Hallelujah,” which is certainly a choice.
As for the supporting cast, let it be known that Stephen McKinley Henderson is, as always, a damned treasure. There is no situation or film that isn’t improved by his presence, and he serves as both Jackie and the movie’s corner man in the ring, keeping emotions up and focused. If there’s any justice, someone will make a ringtone, meme, and motivational poster of him telling people to “Go out there and light that ass up.” The trainer Bobbi “Buddhakan” Berroa (Sheila Atim) is majestically lithe, all Grace Jones energy, a gazelle made of granite, a Zen master and a force of nature. And Boyd, as the young Manny, delivers a reactive and resonant performance.
But this is Berry’s show, and she puts heart and soul into the material. We hope—possibly we instinctively know—that Jackie is going to step up and have Manny as part of her life and find some new kind of organizing identity as a parent. But part of the drama of this very dramatic movie is the internal battle it fights, trying to figure out just how closely it wants to hew to established genre conventions. When it’s firing on all cylinders, Bruised finds the Sirk amid the Stallone, wringing truly grand melodrama out of women reshaping their lives while beating each other senseless.