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 7-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 JJ (The Purge villain Rhys Wakefield).
But writer/director Knate Lee shifts gears and makes Willy's happiness dependent on a canned confrontation with JJ. In order to make this tonal shift, Lee turns JJ, 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 JJ 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.