Frederick Wiseman makes immersing films that transpire inside societal institutions — capturing clockwork, rituals and random sparks with adeptness, and offering observations that leave viewers feeling enriched at the end.
“Boxing Gym,” a nonfiction flick with all the trimmings — along with a keen, graceful mediation on human aggression — is the latest such success by the veteran documentarian.
The setting is Lord’s Gym, an unglamorous Austin, Texas, establishment filled with peeling posters and men, women and kids of all stripes working out, training, sparring and conversing casually. Gym owner Richard Lord sets a tone of seriousness, inclusion and friendliness.
As usual, Wiseman provides no voice-over and leaves it to audiences to process the goings-on for themselves.
What emerges from the whirl of bags, balls, jumping, punching, pounding, tapping, breathing and adroitly photographed footwork is a diverse, disciplined group of professionals and amateurs trying to better themselves through the sport and finding camaraderie and comfort in the gym environment.
Wiseman alternates the physical activity with passages featuring the boxers talking about such topics as fighting matches, the weather and the massacre that occurred at Virginia Tech University. Though these sequences could use more women, they are as vital as the boxing.
Nothing monumental happens, and compared to Wiseman fare such as “Domestic Violence” and the mental health-themed “Titicut Follies,” it feels slightly lightweight.
Still, it is an expertly made, absorbing and immensely thoughtful film, offering appeal to boxing fans, a portrait of the gym experience and a look at how the sport is, on one level, what Wiseman calls a “controlled expression of one form of violence.”
At one point, a boxer describes the “buzz” he feels when he is hit. Elsewhere, boxers discuss the horrific school shooting while the human capacity for brutality echoes potently in the boxing all around them.
A decent dramatist despite his documentarian renown, Wiseman also builds the action to a climax of sorts in which two boxers go at each other, hard.
The film ends with a celestial moment suggesting that what we have witnessed for 91 minutes was just another episode in the life of a little gym and its denizens, bookended by majestic rising and retiring on the part of the sun. Few filmmakers could pull off such a potential eye-roller, but Wiseman makes it seem a wee bit grand.
With Richard Lord, Lord’s Gym boxers
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Running time 1 hour 31 minutes