The corrupting power of anger and the corrosion of desperation drive the sibling rivalry at the heart of Warrior, a well-crafted film that draws deep from the well of the underdog sports subgenre. Tom and Brendan are as estranged as brothers can be, their falling out having occurred as their alcoholic father tore their family to pieces. Tom returns home from an abortive stint in the Marine Corps to fight for small change as an MMA fighter; after knocking a national contender out during a routine sparring match, he convinces his father to train him for something bigger. Brendan teaches physics at a high school, and starts fighting in small MMA matches to pay the bills. They end up facing one another in a national tournament for the title. Though there is a lot of time spent hyping MMA as a grand sport befitting loudmouthed and insufferable announcers, Warrior wisely focuses on the personal. The pace is slow and deliberate, and so when we arrive at the conclusion, the conflict is well established and we are emotionally invested. As we get to kn ow the brothers, we come to learn about their background and what drives them with thankfully sparing dialogue; most of the information is suggested when possible. I have to admit, I cannot stand MMA and the prancing meatbags that pose as Greek warriors of old. That being said, Warrior manages the remarkable task of making this sport appear nuanced. Can’t believe I just wrote that.
Tom Hardy plays Tom with a coiled intensity generally reserved for thermonuclear attacks. His dialogue would scarcely fill a page, yet he is constantly talking with his every gesture and baleful glance. His is an unchecked anger, the targets of which are nonspecific to him. His father beat his mother regularly and drank the money away; Tom moved his mother away to support her and had the task of watching her die. He hates his father more than even he understands, drowning his fury by joining the Marines to fight in Iraq. His rage spreads out in all directions, and there is a great deal more to this backstory that is revealed in Warrior, but it does not take long to discern that a deep self-loathing gives him much of his strength. Joel Edgerton plays Brendan, and his charismatic turn here is every bit as good as his role at the head of the Cody clan in Animal Kingdom. He and his wife work three jobs to pay the bills, but thanks to the collapse in the housing market and medical bills from his daughter’s hospitalization, the bank is preparing to repossess the house. No refinancing is available since his mortgage is upside down, the banks got the bailout, and homeowners were informed they can get fucked. His story is that of our new middle class, driven by creeping desperation to shed increasing amounts of earning power, comfort, possessions, dignity, and hope for the future. When a teacher cannot support a family with salary alone, it is obvious that a society has lost its mind as well as any sense of priorities. He is compelled to fight amateurs in bars for change. Since he has nothing left to sell, then destroying himself for the pleasure of the audience is all he can offer. His wife has no choice but to hope he is not paralyzed or rendered retarded by a decisive punch to the face. Warrior is a movie for our time, and the wounded soul of a nation that is slowly losing all it has labored for while miring itself in regret and loss. Nick Nolte plays himself in a way, the father who is nearing 1000 days of sobriety, though his sons never allow him to forget that the damage has been done. He trains his son after being cautioned not to wallow in the past. His is a thankfully incomplete arc; those wounds shall never close, and every conversation between he and his sons are little more than a festering lack of silence.
Though there are familiar tropes present, they are not given the gravity such dramas generally provide. The father has found Jesus, though this is quickly made into a bizarre joke, as Tom dryly notes that when he left to take his mother into hiding, they hid so well from Nolte’s character that Jesus could not find her. Religion presumably found its beachhead in Nolte’s character as it often does – when everyone else on the planet hates them and a deity becomes a cheap sell. Tom was in the Marine Corps, and though he committed a heroic deed, he also went AWOL for reasons I will not explain. Service in the armed forces is a lazy shorthand in film implying heroic action when it may not necessarily be. Fortunately, Warrior dispenses with this as well. Tom does note that he cared about his brothers in the Corps, but he also abandoned them when his service became disillusioning. Lastly, the use of sports films as a handy way to dramatize redemption is similarly discarded. By becoming champion, one becomes something more, life obtains worth, pride is what matters, etc. This is shortsighted at best, and through the years our collective audience has elevated sports to its own unearned greatness rather than simply entertainment. Warrior has no such illusions. Tom is looking to use the sport and the purse of a championship to further bury his blinding guilt and disperse his unfocused hatred for those around him. Brendan wants to protect his family. His coach tells him in the midst of one match “You don’t knock him out, you don’t have a home.” It should come as no surprise that the brothers face each other in the final, and the opportunity is taken to allow the bad blood between them to hemorrhage.
Sometimes catharsis is all that is necessary, and Warrior plays this conclusion out as well as could be imagined. The acting is first rate, with Tom Hardy further entrenching himself as one of the finest actors in the business, and Joel Edgerton impressing with a star-making role. The photography, the atmosphere, everything is ideal, with the exception of the MMA hype bullshit that annoys to no end. Maybe it is my seething hatred for sports announcers who either affect a Billy Mays impression or act like simpering vaginas when waxing poetic about the majesty of the sport when they are little more than remoras. I wanted an epilogue where they enter the ring to get beaten mercilessly with at least a fractured jaw or two, but you can’t have everything. Warrior manages the unlikely with a subtle and moving drama about a sport that is anything but.