James Toback does not do anything in moderation; the filmmaker behind such messy, audacious films as Fingers and When Will I Be Loved never holds anything back, in his films or in his life (as is evident from Nicholas Jarecki’s 2005 documentary about Toback, The Outsider ), and so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to equally extreme personalities. Toback made a number of movies with Robert Downey Jr. during the actor’s drug years (and has actually criticized him for softening up), and has been friends with controversial boxer Mike Tyson for more than two decades. Toback’s latest film, titled Tyson, is an intimate documentary about the director’s old friend, and Toback affords Tyson the same sort of indulgence he’s given to the brutish, misogynistic characters in his fiction films, coming up with a result that is at least as fascinating.
Of course, Tyson isn’t a fictional character, so it can be a little hard to reconcile this undeniably artful and sympathetic portrait with some of the man’s reprehensible real-life behavior. Toback is clearly on Tyson’s side in reality but is an invisible presence in the movie, and the audience is free to draw its own conclusions about the boxer’s violent upbringing, alleged sexual misconduct and history of substance abuse.
Whether Tyson is a good person or not is almost irrelevant; the point is that he’s unguarded and vulnerable, willing to offer up his inner thoughts for judgment and scrutiny. Tyson never asks for forgiveness, exactly, but he clearly hopes for understanding from an audience that spends the entire movie listening to a virtually uninterrupted monologue. Toback doesn’t talk to anyone other than Tyson, even about the most contentious of subjects, and doesn’t ever speak or appear himself.
When Tyson refers to his alleged rape victim, Desiree Washington, as a “wretched swine of a woman,” it’s hard not to cringe, but what Toback does well here is allow for a range of reactions. He films Tyson mostly in straightforward, simple shots, although he occasionally splits the screen to show several frames of the boxer against stark black backgrounds, speaking in slightly different phrasing about the same incidents. Tyson himself doesn’t know what to think about his life half of the time, and the mix of pity, disgust and outrage that he provokes (or that Toback allows him to provoke) is what drives the movie.
As a biography, Tyson hits all the important beats, giving an overall sense of Tyson’s career arc, his fall from grace, his failed marriage to Robin Givens and his time in jail. But Toback is less interested in recounting facts than he is in offering an impressionistic glimpse into the mind of a troubled man, and as such he allows Tyson to ramble at times, to circle back on himself, to offer up contradictions and malapropisms (Tyson has a weird penchant for randomly inserting 50-cent words like “skullduggery” into his speech). The archival footage of Tyson’s classic bouts provides all the necessary evidence of his onetime boxing prowess, even if his present-day appearance reveals him as pudgy and slow.
The best thing about Tyson is that it’s engrossing regardless of your level of interest in boxing or opinion about the movie’s subject; it may be discomfiting at times, but it’s always honest, and like all of Toback’s strongest work, it’s challenging from beginning to end.