Review of Warrior, Directed by Gavin O’Connor
I find it difficult to write about Warrior. I suspect that my response to it is highly idiosyncratic: it resonated with me personally, but I think others are unlikely to view it the same way I did. To some extent that’s probably true of every review, so here goes: Warrior is one of the most emotionally affecting movies I’ve ever seen.
Warrior is the story of two brothers and their various fights in a mixed-martial arts (MMA) competition. But this is a martial arts movie like Raging Bull is a boxing movie. The heart of the film is in the characters; the stuff inside the ring is just scenery.
The brothers are Brendan and Tommy Conlon. Brendan is a school teacher and a family man who struggles to make his house payments, especially after getting suspended from his job. Tommy is a loner who reappears after several years’ unexplained absence. Tommy hates his father, Paddy, a recovering alcoholic, but shows up on his doorstep anyway. From their separate paths the brothers both enter the MMA competition unbeknownst to each other, and you know what is going to happen like an iron law of nature.
At this point you may be thinking that this movie 1) sounds like a downer, or 2) sounds like a clichéd sports movie. It isn’t a downer—it is ultimately cathartic—but it is about the lives of real characters in difficult circumstances. And yes, it does follow the conventions of sports movies, but unlike most of them, it makes you care about the characters deeply. The movie is the 153rd best movie of all time, according to IMDB.com, for a reason.
Brendan is played by Joel Edgerton, one of those actors you swear looks familiar but you can’t quite place where you saw him. In Edgerton’s case, you saw him as Owen Lars in the Star Wars prequels; as a soldier in Zero Dark Thirty; and, with a moustache, as Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. If I didn’t know they were all played by the same actor I wouldn’t believe it. Edgerton has an uncanny ability to disappear into his roles. That ability serves him well in this role. Brendan is compelled by his loyalty to his family to be self-effacing to the point of desperation. Edgerton is a lean, modest hero.
Tommy is played by the much more famous Tom Hardy; aka, Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. (You also saw him in Inception). I admired Hardy’s performance as Bane more than most, but Hardy absolutely broke my heart in Warrior. Tommy is out to punish himself, and Hardy projects an air of raw, wounded rage through his mumbled dialogue and hunched shoulders.
Their father, Paddy, is played by Nick Nolte, who got an Oscar nomination for this role. His performance is full of heartache, regret, and grizzled sobriety.
Brendan gets more screen time, but Tommy’s largely unspoken journey is the emotional heart of the film. As we learn more about him—he is a veteran of the Iraq war, the first of several revelations we get—we begin to glimpse what may be behind the hurt and the anger. In the end it doesn’t matter: Tommy stands in for everyone who is broken, who lashes out in anger from their hurt, anyone who has been sinned against and who sins against others in response. Which is to say, Tommy stands for us all.
The brothers warily circle each other as the competition nears. Old family hurts resurface. They bring baggage into the ring. Brendan fights for his family. He fights for the prize money so he can pay his bills and save his house. He fights to reclaim his dignity, taken from him by an ignorant boss. He fights for good and noble reasons, ones we want to identify with.
By contrast, Tommy fights out of pure, blind rage. He fights out of hate for the world and what it has done to him. He fights out of loathing for what he has become. He fights to find someone worthy enough to defeat him. He fights for the same reasons that, deep down, we fight against God. Tommy wants to lose: he would hate life even more if it ever crowned him a victor. Brendan fights because he hopes; Tommy fights because he has despaired.
Near the end Tommy suffers a debilitating injury, yet keeps fighting. The image of him staggering in pain, crippled and maimed, yet still pushing on, still fighting, still looking for a final answer, a final victory or final defeat, is painful to watch, but it is an example of what makes this movie something special. It is unstinting and raw. Tommy’s fight is the fight of a broken soul that knows it is lost and damned and is fighting to find a way to surrender to its creator and find death and peace.
It is a surrender we all must make to the Almighty someday. As I said, others may not respond to this movie the way I did; they may think the finale and Brendan’s final lines to Tommy are melodramatic. I found them devastating and perfect, the words of God’s peace falling on a broken soul, welcoming him home. I suspect this movie resonates most deeply with veterans and with survivors of assault or other trauma. I hope friends and family of veterans take time to see this movie because it might give them a small window into the suffering so many bring back.