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My first thought upon leaving Warrior was that Tom Hardy’s bodacious bod should get a “special thanks” in the credits. It’s admittedly an odd reaction to have after seeing a film that far exceeded my expectations, but appropriate nonetheless.
It’s a no-brainer that this flick is a bro-fest – Lionsgate’s marketing has been geared toward the MMA crowd – but if all the god-like man muscle gets women’s butts in seats, that’s good enough for me, because, at its core, Warrior is a really moving, compelling and entertaining drama. And it contains one of the best ensemble performances you’ll see this year.
There are three key stories at play – that of father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) and his sons Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). Why isn’t the movie called Warriors, then? For my money, it’s because the characters’ arcs unfold in such painfully separate ways. Personal demons have wounded innocent bystanders, but the internal battle is displayed just as prominently as the jabs, chokes, taps and takedowns of Warrior’s ring and cage matches.
Nolte’s Paddy Conlon lives in a dark, wood-paneled home lined with old photographs and Hemingway novels. He obsessively listens to an audio book of Moby Dick (this is the kind of metaphor at play here – not exactly inaccessible) and pores over old videos of Tommy wrestling in high school, back when Paddy coached him to multiple victories. He did some very bad things during his years as an alcoholic, causing his wife to leave him, and his sons to disown him. He’s celebrating 1,000 days of sobriety lying alone in the bed he’s made for himself, and it’s utterly heartbreaking. Scene after scene of uncomfortable, unforgiving moments with his sons play out – one of which, between him and Hardy, has surely secured Nolte an Oscar nomination (if not a win).
Tommy appears on his father’s doorstep after a 14-year absence and wastes no time making it clear that Paddy won’t be forgiven his sins. The product of his parents’ bitter separation and the singular witness to his mother’s death – fueled further by a traumatic experience in Iraq – Tommy has so much roiling under the surface that it’s fascinating to see how Hardy composes it under a buff, hardened exterior. Tommy busies himself by training for an MMA competition that promises a $5 million paycheck, and enlists his father to coach him once more. By all accounts, Tommy is the most unsympathetic of the three, but Hardy delivers incredible emotional intelligence with an almost inhumanly understated performance. This is brooding with poisoned bloodlines involved, and it’s raw.
Conversely, we’re introduced to Brendan in a world full of color and light as his face is painted by his daughters at a sunny backyard birthday party. A former amateur fighter, he teaches high school physics (his first scene in a classroom involves him scrawling Newton’s third law on the chalkboard – “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction” – again with the overt metaphor). He and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) work multiple jobs to maintain a home with a mortgage that’s quickly swallowing them in the wake of one daughter’s pricey medical bills, a situation that ultimately forces Brendan to grudgingly return to fighting because the money’s better. We’re talking built-in heartstring-tugging with this one, but Edgerton infuses moments of unforgiving bitterness toward his estranged father, and weighs jealousy against desperation when handling his long-lost brother – especially when he learns he’s entered the same winner-takes-all MMA competition as Tommy. Brendan’s trainer tells him, “He’s not your brother – he’s in the way,” and it feels like a betrayal. That’s when you realize Edgerton has waded through the everyman role to deliver the goods.
I thought I’d be bothered by the simplicity of the narrative – the lining up and shooting down of elements we’ve seen countless times over: The ex-alcoholic father seeking absolution; the troubled introvert war hero; the desperate patriarch in debt – all of them pushed to their limits by separate motivations, setting their sights on a common goal, shaken and stirred. The thing is, with actors like these, it’s clearly better to keep it simple. There’s a backstory they all keep surprisingly close to the vest – we’re privy to bits as the film moves on, but we never get the whole thing.
What we do get is enough to understand each man’s drive, and even more important, we appreciate that some things are withheld. When the Conlons converse, they understand the full history between them even if we don’t – and the intimacy created with that technique is really something. Paddy laments, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” and you see the duality of that statement – the fact that there are boxes left unchecked is what heightens this movie to a level beyond director Gavin O’Connor’s previous sports-themed vehicle Miracle. In this world of violence and pain, the quiet is what cuts deepest.
Warrior clocks in at a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes, and there are times when one feels its length. However, it’s not unwarranted: All of the technical elements are treated with care, given time to develop in such a way that the culmination of the intersecting storylines thoroughly pays off (I’ll admit, I shed a few tears). Sure, some of the wide-shot camerawork and second-unit stuff was a little Tony Scott for my taste (so much spinning!), but the fight scenes are tight and deliberate – the juxtaposition works.
It’s been a week since I saw Warrior, and I’m still thinking about it. Perhaps because its players maintain a level of mystery, I’m compelled to wonder how their respective stories resolve themselves. Perhaps it’s because I know I witnessed three actors give what will surely be considered among their best performances.
What’s most admirable, though, is the exploration of the roles of fathers, sons and brothers – the clear-eyed way they’re examined and the unpredictable nature of how they evolve. This very easily could’ve been the movie we’ve all seen before, about debts owed – but it proves that the solitary struggle to pay them is far more engaging.
Warrior opens Friday in theaters.