Director/Coscreenwriter: Gavin O’Connor
By Roderick Heath
Certain movies seem to ride the currents of the zeitgeist with a blend of fortuitous spiritual accord and opportunistic calculation. Gavin O’Connor, who, after making a mark with Tumbleweeds (1999), has constructed an oeuvre resting solidly on the power of clichéd power words—Miracle! Pride! Glory! Warrior!—to communicate their essence instantly to even the most thickly unibrowed of viewers. With Warrior, he channels Great Recession and War on Terror-era angst and the spreading popularity of the haute-macho histrionics of Ultimate Fighting; as such, in 50 years’ time, when cinema and cultural historians want a window into the cultural mood of our time, they may reasonably deduce that the inchoate impulses and desperate straits of the early 2000s led us to beat the living shit out of our brothers rather than figure out who was more worth hitting. Warrior is the sort of film that leaves me with a nearly physical sense of confusion in trying to reckon with its impact, which is perhaps giving it far more credit than it deserves. Warrior is at once so dizzyingly, gobsmackingly bad that it outrages the critical faculties, and yet it still works on a level of primal melodrama to an extent that it rouses the blood. In fact, I’m not sure if a better, more tasteful movie could summarise the peculiar insanities of our era better. It’s a film that’s not afraid to recycle every fight cliché under the sun or milk every drop of macho gravitas for the sake of trying to keep its presumed audience involved.
Warrior could easily have been made in the 1930s and cast, oh, I dunno, James Cagney and Clark Gable as the goofus and gallant pair of tough brothers forced by various crises to battle each other in the ring, minus the bone-cracking detail and pseudo-realistic swathes of angst over histories of familial crack-up, spousal abuse, and posttraumatic fall-out. Instead of Cagney and Gable, we have Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan Conlon, two brothers with an alcoholic, abusive father named Paddy (Nick Nolte) whose lives have taken disparate paths and yet lead back to the same place. Both were trained in the disciplines of wrestling and martial arts, but Tommy eventually fled the house as a teenager with his mother, whilst the older Brendan stayed at home: both now harbour powerful antipathy for their father, who, when the film opens, is newly, if fragilely, on the wagon. Paddy finds Tommy sitting on his doorstop after years away, sipping liquor from a bottle in a brown bag and overflowing with sullen aggression, repeatedly baiting his old man with lines about how he preferred him as a drunk whilst reminding him of the poverty and agony his ex-wife died in. Tommy nonetheless enlists his father to be his trainer: as a teen Tommy had once wanted to best the record of the storied ancient Greek fighter Theogenes.
On a visit to a local gym, Tommy volunteers as a sparring partner for Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple), a current champ, and promptly beats the hell out of him. This is captured by a bystander on his cell phone, and the footage becomes a You Tube sensation, eventually witnessed by a far-off soldier in Iraq who recognises Tommy as the man who saved his life by pulling him from a shattered tank on the battlefield. At the same time, Brendan, who has retired from the UFC after a near-fatal defeat, has become a high school physics teacher. With a wife, Tess, and children, Brendan has been left heavily in debt in after paying one of his daughters’ medical bills. Threatened with foreclosure, Brendan decides to return to fighting. After winning a bout in the parking lot of a strip joint, Brendan is suspended by his school. Thus he commits to a full return to the sport, talking his old trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) into helping him. The brothers’ fateful paths lead them both to enter Sparta, “the Superbowl of mixed martial arts,” held in Atlantic City.
It feels, as per sporting movie rules, a bit unfair to kick Warrior when it’s down at the box office, but it’s a work that has scored big with those who did see it and many critics, too, and seems destined for a long life on DVD and cable TV like another initially failed and yet seemingly immortal epic of masculine self-pity and triumphalism, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). If Warrior had been made in the ’50s, Marlon Brando would almost certainly have played Tommy, and Hardy, with a hulking physical strength accompanied by a mouth belonging to a Rossetti angel and violently expressive eyes, is definitely a movie star in the mould that produced Brando, Newman, and Dean. Also, if it had been a Brando film made by the cinema artisans of that era, they might have had the good sense to clear the decks of superfluous drama and distraction and work up some depth in portraying Tommy’s conflicted, near-neurotic rage and sadomasochistic impulses. Instead, Warrior tries to sustain two similar, yet distinctive protagonists, which allows the film to stretch out to an ungodly 140 minutes, climax with about a half-dozen fight scenes where two would do, and amass story elements and dramatic tropes as if O’Connor and his fellow screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman bought them up at a fire sale. Unlike David O. Russell’s likeable The Fighter (2009), which retained a seriocomic approach that leavened its well-worn tropes and at least some claim to authenticity, O’Connor’s film is as dourly, joylessly self-serious as any tattooed obsessive UFC heavy, and seems pitched to the types of people who will, when watching it, chime in every five minutes with statements like, “That’s right, yo, ‘cos it’s about respect, you know what I mean, bro?”
In spite of the ancient Greek references and the practically mythical theme of the two brothers doomed to clash in battle, Warrior has no pretensions to Greek tragic style, or, if it does, it hopelessly smothers them. Warrior is rather a Rocky variant where the brothers play Rocky and Apollo, and like those characters, seem to summarise a contemporary schism in the American mindset. The major difficulty O’Connor sets himself is setting up a situation where two characters who might rightfully expect to be the heroes of the piece duke it out. Tommy is a war hero and plans to donate whatever he can win fighting to the widow of his former brother in arms Pilar Fernandez (Vanessa Martinez). Brendan, a beleaguered underdog, is of course fighting to save his middle-class status. Their fighting styles are as polarised as their personalities: Tommy is a lethal pugilist who tries to bash all opponents into the ground immediately, whereas Brendan is a slippery wrestler who absorbs heavy blows before contorting his opponents into agonising knots they can’t escape. A sequel might reasonably see them taking on Godzilla and Mothra.
O’Connor, whose foolish enthusiasm and utter cynicism blend indecipherably, throws in everything but the kitchen sink for the sake of emotionally involving his audience. His dramatic style is much like Tommy’s fighting technique: he hits and keeps on hitting until resistance is shattered. I’d be lying if I said by the end I hadn’t been affected by the film on its most basic level—wanting to see how the film could satisfyingly resolve its thorny moral and emotional quandaries, and see our heroes beat their seemingly indomitable opponents. But afterwards I felt greasy and quite genuinely used: the film pushes buttons, which I’m sure many of us have these days, of latent rage at fiscal institutions and corrupted authority figures, of fears about how to keep roofs over heads in tough times, and anxieties over the psychological and social damage of the wars that have both defined and yet also remained oddly alien from the everyday landscape of our era. And yet Warrior squirms out of making any real investigations into the nature of these crises, because at the same time it attempts to exploit such issues, it also gives a moral and emotional hand job to a presumed audience of conservatives and young men aching for manly validation.
It’s heavily suggested that Paddy’s domestic violence was caused by PTSD after his own military service, and Tommy makes many of the same mistakes, acting with surly, unforgiving aggression towards both father and brother. Yet the film gets off on the sight of soldiers coming to serenade Tommy at his bouts with the Marine hymn. The film outlines the good cause Tommy and Brendan have to be angry with their father, and yet O’Connor spares no effort in wringing our empathy with the pathetic, shambolic old man, as when he’s rebuffed by Brendan outside his house like a poor, panting, lost dog as he tells his kids, who don’t know Paddy at all. Later, the film builds this up to a note that’s both ludicrous and yet kind of affecting when Paddy, exhausted by Tommy’s cruelty, falls off the wagon and screams lines from the talking book version of Moby Dick he’s been toting throughout the film in Tommy’s face, stirring something like filial pity from Tommy at last. O’Connor wants to depict catharsis here, but he fails to gain it precisely because he’s copped out of any actual reckoning with the emotional damage both men have suffered and inflicted. The lack of any essential irony or even genuine consequentiality to this background detail finally hurries up a process I’ve noticed in other recent films, like Jim Sheridan’s limp Brothers (2009), of turning the familial and spousal abuse of PTSD-afflicted soldiers into an equivalent of a battle scar—ugly, but part of the job of the good loyal God-fearin’ mom-and-apple-pie-lovin’ soldier.
O’Connor and Co. set up a fascinating set of standards that determine the outcome of the film, leavening Tommy’s lustre of patriotism and military heroism by making him a deserter (that’s bad), but one who deserted because he was angry at the friendly fire incident that killed his buddy (that’s good), who doesn’t care who he hurts on the way to his desired goal (that’s bad), but his desired end is helping out his pal’s cutely ethnic family (that’s good). O’Connor goes for the money every time, whether it’s on a relatively casual level, framing Pilar and her child after a weepy phone conversation with Tommy with a photo of him with her late husband, to the most overt, like the aforementioned singing Marines bit. Truth be told, the main source of tension in the narrative of Warrior comes from waiting to see which cliché and manipulative trope O’Connor will employ next. We’ve got Brendan’s wife—O’Connor makes sure to give us a view of Morrison’s shapely ass during a supposedly serious bathroom confrontation between these two hard-pressed average folks—acting out the compulsory role of whining concernedly about her husband’s health and safety when he wants to get back in the ring but eventually coming around to stand by her man at ringside. We’ve got Brendan’s school principal Zito (Kevin Dunn, of course) chewing him out, suspending him, and fending off the appeals of his students to watch Brendan’s fights, but cheering Brendan when watching him on television, and finally joining the kids to view the climactic bout. O’Connor doesn’t so much deploy information as wallop you over the head with it, resolutely failing the “show, don’t tell” test with a constant stream of backstory-dropping conversations and the incessant yammering of the fight callers Bryan Callen and Sam Sheridan, playing themselves, aptly, as the kinds of ESPN-ish commentators you want to strangle with their own entrails after five minutes.
Hollywood formula depends, of course, on the relative memory of an audience, which might remember one or two variations on a theme but often won’t recall the 2,000 or more before that. But Warrior is something new: a film where just about every scene, line, theme, motif, and visual cue seems to have been clipped out of some preexisting source, with a meretricious veneer of grainy steadicam realism and the gratuitous use of the “Ode to Joy” to make the audience feel just so fucking cultured, you know? The film’s attitude to the sport and the people who engage it in is curious: giving our two triumphant white heroes (Irish, of course, ever a safe niche identity) a small army of stock punks and ethnic foes, reminding us that most of those who fight the sport are “animals” amongst whom a teacher with a Beethoven theme tune is an incongruous stand-out, whilst getting off on the steroid-pumped physiques and blood-spattering action with unremitting gall. Warrior builds to apogees of absurd hooray-for-us hype by the time Brendan has to battle the hulking Russian champion Koba (Kurt Angle), who struts onto stage clad, I shit you not, in a jumpsuit emblazoned with hammer and sickle. O’Connor, who with Miracle (2004) revisited an iconic moment of Reaganite resurgence, makes it clear here that he’s trying to tap into a fantasy on the American Right of revisiting the Cold War battles in the fraught hope it will return coherence to its worldview and mettle to its ranks. Sadly, we don’t even get to hear Koba say “I must breaaak yooou.”
This film does seem, with all due respect to my U.S. friends and readers, to capture something almost pathological in aspects of the current American mindset. Warrior finally presents its two brothers locked in mortal combat where one breaks the arm of the other and bashes him into submission for the sake of pure financial desperation, with the side-effect of providing some decidedly nonfruity psychotherapy about turning rage that might be better expended on other targets on each other. Thus, the mistakes of the past cannot teach: they can only be recommitted with ever more hysterical, blunt force until you’re literally on your last legs, broken and bloodied, still commanding the allegiance of the uniformed ranks you nominally betrayed. In short, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that Warrior is pitching to be the Tea Party’s manifesto movie.
That the film holds together at all, and even develops a charge of emotional involvement that isn’t pure flimflam, is because of Hardy and Edgerton, and, to a lesser extent, Nolte. Edgerton, up until recently a fairly bland Aussie pretty boy kicking about in international cinema looking for a place to land, has, in his too-brief contribution to Animal Kingdom (2010) and this film, begun to age interestingly. His believably minimalist playing of Brendan’s mix of assailed intelligence, anxiety, and fighting gumption nicely contrasts Hardy’s glowering mass of oedipal anger. Thanks to them, a confrontation between the brothers on the Atlantic City beachfront delivers the right charge of lingering resentment curdling with grief to produce a hostility that will drive them to nearly tear each other apart in the ring. Nolte’s climactic moment, shouting Melville in Hardy’s face, is the sort of moment that can easily defeat an actor; I’m not sure even Nolte survives it, but he gives it a herculean try. Now bring on Godzilla and Mothra.