What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? And what if these two sides of the coin are long suffering brothers, victims of a familial fallout? Ok, despite this clear central contrivance director Gavin O’Connor has created in Warrior a penetrating and blistering emotional drama, full of visceral flair and exhilarating entertainment that delves deeply into the reservoir of family crisis, blending deftly an emerging phenomenon with an age-old fable.
Here the immovable object is Joel Edgerton’s Brendan Conlon, an all-American family man and teacher on the verge of economic bankruptcy and a masculinity breakdown. Feeling the pinch and needing to provide for his growing family he takes to the ring, dragging up his fighting days complete with black eyes that only serve to get him suspended from his position at the school. Brendan’s quiet desperation and stalwart instinct to survive are juxtaposed to the opposing side of the aforementioned paradox; Tom Hardy’s unstoppable force, running from something and forgetting it by involving himself as well in his own fighting past. Where Brendan is calm and introspective Tommy is a barely restrained, positively frightening on screen presence. At once disturbing and mesmerising, his mad eyes intimately revealing his own distorted picture of the world. As the two embark on their separate journeys to the top of a Grand Prix Mixed Martial Arts tournament, SPARTA, there collision is obvious but its happening is remarkable.
In pitching brother against brother O’Connor has infused his ultra-contemporary sports fable with a grand and classical emotional beat. In similar fashion to Thor the brothers circling of each other and eventual confrontation rips layers away from their grimy pasts, exposing piecemeal the tragedies that have led to their estrangement. An estrangement caused by pain of both body and soul and thus can only be undone the same way. In this piecemeal fashion the film builds slowly but with a simmering intensity that matches the fierceness of Tommy’s eyes. And to its credit the film takes time to truly develop each side of the juxtaposed paradox. In successfully balancing our sympathies O’Connor keeps us wholly invested in each corner right up until the climactic face-off.
The brother against brother narrative is supplemented by an equally classical sins of the father emotional catalyst in which Nick Nolte turns heartbreaking ex-alcoholic, ex wife-beater as a tender sore of a man; a barely healing scab that all the time feels he needs only to be delicately picked to bleed afresh. The revelations of familial abuse and abandonment may be a bit clustered and over-imposed but the trio of leads hold the portrait together with such superb character arcs that they demand their pain becomes your own.
Here is where Hardy excels. If one was to call a lead actor it would undoubtedly be him, for his are the scorched shores upon which the waves of the other character’s actions break. He’s an explosive, tortured, uncontrollable soul; but whose motivations and origins are sadly never given satisfactory exposition. Nonetheless Hardy’s demented rage and raw power overcome these narrative niggles as Tommy’s fractious fraternal and paternal relations fray at the hands of vice, love and war. Building on Bronson and showing hints of Bane his animalistic portrayal is nothing short of stunning. At the same time, though, his is the character and performance of a child, unknowing of its own strength. Even the most detached audience members will struggle to overcome the urge to comfort, the hope to heal him in some fashion.
Whether audiences will accept the presented outcome is questionable but there’s no doubt the bittersweet culmination of Tommy and Brendan’s face off is deeply moving. Here O’Connor has successfully managed to subvert an incorruptible trope of the sports movie genre cum family drama. By supplementing Brendan’s all-American instinct to survive and win out for his family with Tommy’s damaged child he instils the ending with both relief and happiness, as opposed to calls of clichés, from a prepared audience.
Some will smirk at the fights as very blatant metaphors for the deeper battles going on between the protagonists but this is crisis of masculinity stuff and little heals more than reconciliation forged in the fires of testosterone. That said unfortunately the fight scenes are, for all their brute physicality and shock violence, one of the weaker elements of the film. Lacking the tight direction and coherent finesse of The Fighter earlier this year they feel confusing and frantic, but perhaps this does truly mirror the sport itself.
As the brothers expel their pain and aggression, trapped by years of isolation from one another the last narrative paradigm comes into focus; a coming of age tale for both the individuals and the family unit. Yes, we all know daddy issues hurt, but O’Connor’s film achieves a remarkable, swirling torrent of emotion: an epic, patient, unflinching deconstruction of a family at war with itself.