It's about all these things (the "preparing for a fight" part, too, although not in a Rocky sense). Jacky and Diederik were besties as kids; their fathers worked together, tied up with the same sketchy cattle characters Jacky is now dealing with. Then they crossed paths with a disturbed boy, and that long-ago horror is now leading inexorably to ruin.
The film is shot effectively, which is to say unpleasantly. I felt stifled by the greyness and the tight close-ups, but it worked to create tension. Good acting throughout as well. Perceval's jumpy jackass is convincing but not unsympathetic, and Schoenaerts has one of those beautifully busted European-actor faces that American film doesn't really allow for; it looks carved, not born, but it's expressive in spite of that, and he does fine work with an Ennis Del Mar-type character who isn't very articulate. And there isn't much even an articulate character can say to Jacky's situation. The film is about a man who couldn't quite become a man, who lived without living, and it's beyond discussing.
It puts a foot wrong now and then -- I didn't love the last shot, and the crucifix hallucination is sophomoric -- and it's hard to take in some ways, but it's a strong movie, in the way a drink is strong.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.