An Ode to Pain

When I saw the previews for Warrior, I figured it wasn’t for me, and so I really didn’t pay close attention to the reviews. I heard it was not just a good fight movie but a good movie in itself. But I’m not an MMA fan so I resisted. Well, I finally gave in and watched it, and am so glad I did because it’s one of the better films I’ve seen in a long time and a surprising fit with some of the research I’ve been doing.

Warrior tells the story of two brothers separated in their youth. Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) and his mother flee their abusive, alcoholic father/husband, Paddy (Nick Nolte). Sixteen year old Brendan (Joel Edgerton) sticks behind because he has fallen in love with Tess (Jennifer Morrison), who he eventually marries and with whom he has two daughters. In staying behind, he also hopes that his father will take a greater interest in his fighting/wrestling abilities now that his more gifted brother is out of the way.

Paddy (Nick Nolte) trains estranged son Tommy (Tom Hardy).

One night, out of the blue, Tommy shows up at his father’s house unannounced. After a tense initial meeting, he asks his father to train him for Sparta, an upcoming 16-man MMA winner take all fight. At the same time Brendan and Tess are in dire financial straits…they’re upside down on their mortgage after having to spend money on one of their daughter’s medical bills. Between the two, they’re working three jobs (he’s a high school physics teacher) and still can’t  cover their monthly bills. Brendan starts fighting in bush league matches and eventually persuades long-time family friend Frank (Frank Grillo) to train him for Sparta too. As Hollywood conventions have it, the two brothers, overcoming near impossible odds, eventually square off in the final.

That the two brothers make it to the end of the tournament might be enough to put some viewers off. It certainly sparks eye rolls. But like all great fight films, this isn’t the point. There are seeds of Rocky here in the gritty cinematography and down-on-its-luck fighter/city/country motif. But the closer comparison, most likely, would be Raging Bull, at least in terms of Tommy’s story line, and despite Brendan’s situation, with which most viewers might closely connect, it is Tommy’s film, thanks in large part to Tom Hardy’s miraculous performance. Here he toes the line between a crazed psychopath (echoes of his star-making turn in Bronson) and the deeply troubled, alienated son/brother. From the fight scenes alone, it is easy to see why Christopher Nolan cast him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

Brendan (Joel Edgerton) fights in parking lot matches to make extra money.

But Hardy’s performance is nearly matched by Nolte who taps into real life to portray Paddy. He is so sympathetic as a 1,000 days sober father trying to reconnect with his sons…like an aged version of the funnier side of Coach Pete Bell from Blue Chips. However, he really shines when he falls off the wagon, which, unfortunately puts the period on his performance, as his character essentially disappears into the background.

The strength of the film is in its smart script and its well-paced character development, thanks in large part to the work of writer/director Gavin O’Connor. Tommy is a supremely mysterious character, as shy and reserved outside the ring as he is destructive inside it. He has a tortured and heroic background that O’Connor teases out over the course of the film, adding layer upon layer to his character. Braden’s experiences are less dramatic but no less intense. He has a most important job but, like his real-world peers, is woefully under-compensated. His part time fighting to help make ends meet gets him suspended from work…without pay. He is also estranged from Paddy, even though he stayed behind, and he cannot understand why Tommy harbors so much anger and hatred towards him for a choice he made when he was sixteen.

While the fight scenes and the tournament structure do provide thrills, Tommy’s anger and the brokenness of his family is the beating heart of this film, and it is the reason I will return to it time and time again. I am reminded of the notion that the sins of the father (parents) will be visited on the children. In a most powerful way, Warrior reveals the brokenness that domestic violence and alcoholism unleashes on a family. Tommy is the chief victim (if we can actually rank them) because he chooses to be. He has bottled up his anger, rage, and resentment until it seems as if it, and not his muscles, will burst through his chiseled exterior. It is what animates his fighting, but it is also, no doubt, what helped make him a conflicted hero. It also threatens to kill him if he doesn’t address it.

Brendan seems to have made a peace, of sorts, with his family situation. He only allows Paddy to contact him by phone or mail. There is anger and resentment there too, but it is not his motivation. Instead, he finds this in his love of wife and children. The latter of which, Paddy has found in his sobriety, even though it is not reciprocated. Though Paddy finds God and cleaner living and offers heart-felt apologies to his sons, forgiveness and reconciliation lie outside of his grasp and, perhaps, this world. Here, Warrior suggests that some wounds cut too deep.

There might be more to the violence here than a championship MMA fight.

Not surprisingly, violence is at the center of the film. First, we have the violence between Paddy and his wife and children. This is the violence of both abuse and neglect, and its effects linger. Second, there is the violence of MMA and the Sparta matches, which fans in the film flock to just as fans of the real world events no doubt flocked to the film. It’s an ancient, global attraction, but one that still puzzles. But the key moment of violence in the film, for me, was the final round between Tommy and Brendan. This is where the film ventures into Raging Bull territory and suggests a possible redemptive function to violence, as Christopher Robert Deacy has written about regarding the films of Martin Scorsese. SPOILER: Deeply broken, both emotionally and physically, Tommy will not throw in the towel and forces Brendan to quite literally beat him into submission or to beat the hell out of him. The final scenes of their brutally emotional fight are stirringly edited and shot. There’s an intimacy to the fight that escapes the audience and against which Tommy fights. It’s as if he knows that he somehow deserves this beating for all the resentment and anger he has harbored, but in the end, in a submission hold, when he hears Brendan tell him he is sorry and that he loves him, he finally taps out.

One of the strengths of Warrior is its open ending. The two fighter brothers hobble out of the arena wrapped in each others’ embrace, a matter of both physical and emotional need. There are no wordy conclusions or epilogues of brighter days, but there is hope. Earlier in the film, when Paddy quite successfully falls off the wagon, he listens to Moby Dick on tape and drunkenly pleads with the captain to stop the ship. As Tommy wrestles the bottle away and Paddy into bed, the father moans, “We’re all so lost.” I imagine many viewers were so attracted to Warrior because it echoes their own feelings of being lost and frustrated. The film symbolically cries out for them in Tommy’s anguished violence and Brendan’s quiet frustrations. In this way, it is a microcosm of so much of the American experience from traumatized war veterans to high school teachers struggling to make ends meet. As part of his unorthodox regimen, Frank trains his fighters to the music of Beethoven, and Brendan enters the ring to “Ode to Joy.” Though it can be a joyful viewing experience, Warrior is an Ode to Pain, and it is equally as beautiful.

Warrior (140 mins.) is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language, and thematic material and is available on DVD.