Warrior (2011)

Who’d have thought that one of the most powerful and touching films of the year would be about a Mixed Martial Arts tournament? And while many would be quick to say that the film is so much more than that, the strength of Warrior is that the trappings that surround the deeper relationships and themes are essential to understanding the questions which make the film’s core.

The MMA conceit is not simply a plot vehicle but a culture the film uses to examine and explore the idea of human nature. The sport is seen as marginalized and maligned and throughout the film those participating in it are referred to as animals. And yet the very people who apply that label in condescension come to either participate or spectate in the sport. Why?

After all, high-school physics teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) seems an unlikely choice as a competitor in the MMA. Why would he go onto fight? Of course, there’s his core conflict to provide for his family and MMA gives the promise of money, but why MMA? Brendan isn’t the strongest or the fastest fighter. He’s the underdog. Why literally risk his life for the money?

His brother, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) is the fighter in the family. An ex-Marine, Tommy takes up training for the MMA with his recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). Tommy has the aggression, the build, the strength and the anger. But his reasons for fighting are much different than his brother’s reasons.

It’s the MMA that provides a conduit to explore the savage in the midst of a civilized world. Are human beings civilized? What is man’s nature?  Is Paddy truly saved from the bottle through his conversion to Christianity or is he still just as lost at sea? Are human beings noble creatures seeking redemption and forgiveness for their past or just animals in cages?

Warrior tackles these questions in complex and unexpected ways. Not all the answers are definitive, not all the revelations come from the likeliest of candidates, not all the truths are easy to reconcile. The answers are just as messy and uneasy as the characters. There are no cheap resolutions, in fact, one might argue that by the end the film doesn’t resolve any of the real issues at work in the characters’ lives.

It’s the descent into a fight of mad dogs, a battle which pits brother against brother where the film captures moments of pure elegance and beauty. It’s not so much in the soft images, but in the simple acts between characters, a tight embrace, a small smile, a worried look convening much more than anything words could say.

In the broad, sweeping narrative moments, it’s easy to ignore the small shots and these tiny acts along the way which make up the turning points and ultimately delve deeper into the question of what it means to be human. The ability to search for this truth in the lowest of places, in the dark, marginalized corners of life, at the raggedy edge makes Warrior even more profound.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing