Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Warrior (Gavin O'Connor, 2011)

From the second the camera settles on Tommy (Tom Hardy), a former Marine sitting on his father's doorsteps drinking, no one could fail to see that something is wrong with him. Tommy carries scars not only from Iraq but his childhood, and at times it seems as if the ones from the latter affect him more than those of the former. Any good sports movie (and quite a few bad ones) is never about the sport itself, but Warrior is, appropriate to its chosen activity, especially blunt in its placement of the sport as incidental to the real story told through it.

But then, everything in Warrior is blunt, from Gavin O'Connor's meaty, intimate fight scenes to the hyper-masculine dialogue to the borderline shameless appropriations from other fighting movies like Rocky. Despite that thick-headed approach, Warrior routinely subverts expectations and rearranges clichés into something fresh. By casting Tommy as a Marine, the film links the impulses of war and sport (the latter originally a means of staying in shape for the former) as a way for broken people to act out their latent aggression. And by ultimately pitting him against his brother, O'Connor presents us with two rivals equally worthy of the audience's sympathy. What seemed from its marketing to be a formulaic cash-in on a fad instead emerges one of the most even-handed sports films I've ever seen.

With terse exchanges, Tommy evokes a rich history of abuse at the hands of his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), whose sobriety is given none of the respect and sudden forgiveness it always brings in the movies. Some wounds don't heal, and Tommy viciously undercuts the father's attempts at a reconciliation. If anything, Paddy's sobriety only makes the man angrier, for now he lacks the villain who motivated him; Tommy clearly went to Iraq to get out his fury, but he only returned with more anger and bitterness, and MMA is just another legal way to hurt people in an attempt to beat his pain into something else.

O'Connor contrasts this broken, volatile man with his brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), who used to be in the UFC but gave up fighting to start a family. He even works as a high school physics teacher, where he looks completely in his element teaching Newton's laws to attention-deficient but affectionate pupils.  Where Tommy is a hulking mass of quivering, anxious rage, Brendan has leaned, still muscular but clearly someone who has to go to a regular job every day. His face is soft and complacent, but it also sports some slight discoloration soon explained as the result of moonlighting as a fighter in local matches to make extra cash to pay off his crippling mortgage. This completes O'Connor's bleak view of modern America, a place where one must resort to violence either to make money or escape oneself. The interests converge with a major MMA tournament in Atlantic City with a $5 million prize. With the noose tightening around Brendan, he decides to go for broke to protect his family. Tommy, meanwhile, gets wind of the same tournament, and he guns for the prize money to keep a promise to a brother-in-arms, a comrade he clearly views as a relative more than anyone in his own family.

For a 140-minute film, Warrior is remarkably concise. It restricts the interaction between brothers to only a single pre-climax scene, but it's enough. Tommy, his puffy lips giving him the appearance of always recovering from a punch to the face, drawls out insults to the brother he feels abandoned the family when their mother needed him most. Brendan, strong but disciplined and tamed, is more plaintive, apologizing for his naïve, self-centered behavior as a 16-year-old and growing ever more desperate in his pleas as each one falls on deaf ears. Both actors add minute but deepening touches to round out the dynamic between the two brothers. The steadfast loathing in Hardy's eyes silently seizes upon the self-doubt that enters into Edgerton's softened pleas, betraying a nagging guilt that confirms Brendan's culpability. Within minutes, the past, said and unsaid, between the brothers comes out in full, and the conflict that motivates both offers no moral high ground for either party.

Even better is Nolte's Paddy. Audiences by now are used to Nolte's grizzled, almost possessed image and voice, but Paddy offers a more complex portrait of addled gruffness. Though we eventually see the Paddy his children feared and despised—and he proves more than worthy of that hatred and terror—we meet the old man as a repentant grandfather hoping to make peace with both his sons, only to receive curt rejection from both. Tommy is painful enough, returning from a war zone even madder at him than before, but Brendan's denouncement is too much to bear. Nolte has an absolutely devastating scene on the lawn of Brendan's home when he comes to tell his son of Tommy's return and also his own thousandth day of sobriety. Clearly hopeful this milestone will convince Brendan to let him see his grandchildren, Nolte's shaky, cautious smile turns to despairing shock when his son maintains his position forbidding his father to see the kids. Brendan turns to head back inside, and the camera reveals the two children standing in the doorway. In a flash, Nolte's face turns into a horrid combination of agony and ecstasy, his voice breaking with the joy of seeing his grandkids (one of them for the first time) and then crumbling with the pain of having to remain where he is like a stranger as Brendan shoos them back inside, the girls unaware who that strange old man with the funny look on his face is. I've never seen this side of Nolte, and it struck me as much as the later scene of the old Paddy clawing his way back into the open, his red-faced, inchoate gurgling scarier, yet no less tragic a display of powerlessness, than crying at the sight of his granddaughters.

With that kind of pain eating away at the characters, it's no wonder that getting thrown around a cage for a few minutes might be considered a form of relief. O'Connor's fight scenes are gruesomely intimate, the tangle of bulky but lithe limbs mixing the elegance of martial arts with the showboating bestiality of wrestling. In filming Tommy's swift assaults, O'Connor goes for sheer speed, and even then he's barely able to keep up for the blur of flesh that speeds into whatever unlucky opponent faces off against him. Brendan, on the other hand, fights more traditionally, going for the pin instead of trying to knock out people three times his size. O'Connor takes his time with these fights, but he also gets a bit closer, getting into the techniques Brendan must use to even the playing field between him and top-shape fighters. The final fight, naturally, combines the two elements, making for a grisly duel all the more repellent because both characters are so well-defined and sympathetic that seeing either get hurt offers no pleasure.

Still, there are some aspects that grated. Brendan's side occupation naturally runs afoul of the school administration, but O'Connor shows even the people who punish Brendan rooting for him to win in front of students, and the constant cutaways make for nothing more than a cute distraction. Furthermore, as much as the film succeeds for its directness, some parts are just too on the nose, especially Paddy listening to an audiobook of Moby Dick throughout, its physeterid tale of obsession and self-destruction conveniently breaching now and again at just the right time. Having said that, Nolte does capture some of that Ahab madness when Paddy falls off the wagon, but that only makes the use of the book on tape more obvious.

Overall, however, Warrior typically sidesteps the usual pitfalls of the genre. The film's originality didn't hit home until the penultimate match, between Brendan and a legendary MMA fighter named Koba. In most other sports movies, this would have been the climax, our hero pitted against some undefined, massive obstacle, a vaguely foreign Cold War reheat propped up to be beaten by a fresh-faced American to (somehow) bring honor to the nation. But Koba is just the last thing that standing between a long-delayed settling of scores, one transfixing because the players involved seek not personal or national glory but some kind of breakthrough between each other. Besides The Wrestler, no sports movie has made me care so much about its characters since Hoop Dreams.

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