Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte in Warrior.
Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte in Warrior. Lionsgate
When it was released last September, I thought I had Warrior's number. Previews promised a tale of two brothers who overcame their tortured history by beating the stuffing out of each other in a mixed martial arts tournament. I figured it was the latest film in which sports and/or violence gave heterosexual male characters a culturally palatable reason to cry. I figured I'd pass.
But Warrior just kept getting my attention. It didn't recoup its $25 million budget, but it did get solid reviews from critics I respect. It also landed at #145 on the IMDb's user-generated list of the all-time best movies, which didn't guarantee I'd love it but at least suggested it was more than a boilerplate kick-a-thon. Then the film nabbed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte, who plays the boys' grizzled father. Since the critics, the people, and the Academy were behind it, I finally watched the movie a few days ago.
It certainly isn't a standard sports parable. Instead, it's the most philosophically terrifying narrative I've encountered in years. (Warning: some spoilers ahead.)
And make no mistake, Warrior wants us to know it has a philosophy. Consider younger brother Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy): Within the first ten minutes, we're told he was an undefeated young wrestling champion, which made people compare him to the ancient Greek fighter Theogenes. We even see the family's homemade chart comparing Theogenes' and Tommy's records. Young Conlon is less a man than a heroic ballad waiting to be sung.
And the MMA tournament the Conlons join? The winner-take-all competition that nets the champion $5 million? It's called Sparta.
And Paddy Conlon? The father? He wallows in regret about his drunken past by listening to Moby-Dick on tape. He even gets so loaded that he confuses himself with Ahab. Could that mean his sons, who were alienated by his addiction, have become his white whales? Maybe so.
Don't get me wrong, though. I appreciate a "realistic" narrative with cosmic implications. They make a story thrilling, and up to a point, they help me forgive Warrior's logical lapses.
It's odd, for instance, that an international MMA tournament worth $5 million would only attract 16 fighters, and that two of them would be no-names like Tommy and his brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton). It's even stranger that despite the tournament's global press coverage, Tommy and Brendan are practically in the cage before they realize they're both fighting. But when a story's racing toward a mythically resonant conclusion, it may be churlish to focus on the blandly mortal details.
But about that conclusion: The cosmic grandeur serves an awfully unsettling worldview.
For instance, we learn that both Tommy and Brendan have been betrayed by the supposedly valuable systems of American life. Brendan used to be a professional fighter, but he retired to become a public school teacher. However, since he can't support his family on his salary, he fights in parking lots to make extra money. When school leaders learn about Brendan's pastime, they fire him. There's an outcry from the students, who love their teacher for going outside the blood-draining world of public education to express his brutal instincts.
Meanwhile, Tommy has gone AWOL from the Marines after almost being killed by friendly fire. We learn that after fleeing his unit, he rescued fellow soldiers in distress, which naturally makes him a hero. But his heroism damns the military. It wasn't until he fled the Marines that Tommy blossomed. It wasn't until he escaped the government institution that almost got him accidentally killed that he was able to thrive.
It's telling that both brothers plan to use their winnings to support a family: Brendan has his own wife and kids, and Tommy wants to help the wife and kids of a dead Marine. Women and children, then, are also better served in a society where fists do the talking.
I may not agree with that idea, but I respect its audacity. Ultimately, though, Warrior negates its own subversion by pushing the brothers toward Sparta. Symbolically, this tournament is the ultimate outlying community, a place where primal instincts are celebrated and rewarded. But you know what? Sparta is financed by a wealthy businessman who says he wants to see people compete. The Conlons might be expressing their feelings in the cage, but the cage itself is owned by an unapologetic capitalist exploiting the fighters for personal gain. To continue the classical theme, he's the emperor who constructs a coliseum, then charges people to watch the gladiators fight.
Nevertheless, Warrior suggests we have to rely on wealthy businessmen — and the media that hawk their projects — to create valid platforms for self-expression.
This makes Warrior an inversion of The Hunger Games, another current text in which the wealthy make the poor fight in a televised event, promising that the sole winner will take enormous riches back to his or her community. In The Hunger Games, the fighters also discover their souls in the midst of battling each other, but when they do, they tear the arena down. In Warrior, the Conlons have a catharsis in the ring, and then they finish the match. They stumble away hugging and crying, just like the spectators who are delighted by the blood on the floor.
Mark Blankenship tweets as @IAmBlankenship.