Gavin O'Connor knows how to build a smoldering fire. As he did with Pride and Glory, his previous film, the director clears a space, lays in wood, wedges in a few newspapers, lights a match, and gently blows.
If Warrior never erupts into a blazing conflagration, despite the plenitude of brutal fisticuffs and cheering fanatics on display, that appears to be by design. Warrior follows a similar trajectory to Miracle, O'Connor's 2004 recreation of the unexpected victory of the U.S. Men's ice hockey team at the 1980 Olympics, with Kurt Russell as the head coach. Like that film, Warrior has a predetermined finale in mind from the very beginning. That's not a spoiler: there's no possible way that its concluding sequence is not foreordained; it's as inevitable as sports history. It's almost as though O'Connor revels in the challenge of undercutting expectations by arriving at expected destinations via alternate routes.
Like Pride and Glory, the new film revolves around fathers and their families. Warrior is set in modern-day Pittsburgh, in its essence an unalterably blue collar town, according to O'Connor. Thus, it's a fitting locale for high school teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) to moonlight as a fighter.
He dare not tell his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison), becaus Brendan agreed to end his career as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitor to lead a "normal" life after the birth of their first child. Alas, the economy has turned sour, Brendan's salary doesn't cover all their expenses anymore, and their home is in danger of being foreclosed. Tess says she's fine with giving up the house in a modest neighborhood and moving into an apartment; what she can't stand is the idea of watching her husband get pummeled in exchange for a few dollars more. Brendan rationalizes his desire to fight again by cloaking it in a manly pride of providing for his family. (Those who are familiar with the US TV show Breaking Bad will note a similar motivation / justification for the lead character.)
Across town, Tom (Tom Hardy) walks back into the life of his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte). Tom's recent past is shrouded in mystery. Has he always been so tight-lipped and surly? He is given to grunts and muttered syllables; his replies to direct questions are limited to one or two words. Paddy's efforts to reach out to Tom fall on deaf ears. Paddy is a shambling, recovering alcoholic, a roaring beast who's reigned in his animalistic instincts by finally getting off the bottle after a lifetime of personal and familial ruin. Beyond the scars, Tom gives evidence that he has not, and may never, heal from the wounds inflicted by his father and, perhaps, the world at large.
Brendan and Tom enter a winner-take-all MMA tournament that promises a huge payout to the victor. On the surface, Brendan wants to win to secure his family's future; Tom wants to win to prove he can do it. Both need to win to defeat their inner demons, and to resolve the conflicts they face in their families. They're on a collision course to the finale; along the way there are revelations to be unveiled and secrets to be shared.
O'Connor's Tumbleweeds (1999) allowed space for Janet McTeer to give an extraordinary performance, one that earned her an Academy Award nomination. Miracle showcased Kurt Russell's ability to play an aloof, sometimes unlikable character who was determined to lead his team to victory. In Pride and Glory, Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, and Jon Voight all turned in finely-tuned performances that rang true and strong.
Warrior features superb characterizations by Hardy, Nolte, and Edgerton. Hardy is extraordinarily confined; within a narrow range, he conveys an inordinate amount of self-loathing and petty anger, filtering it through an unhappy loner's bitter perspective. Nolte hints at a memorable, shaky past that is covered up by a thin crust of guilt and recrimination. Edgerton faces the most challenging task, and delivers a portrait of a tough yet tender family man who refuses to allow his shortcomings as a fighter to stop him short of the goal he's set for himself.
Warrior is not Rocky redux; the finale doesn't fit well with what's come before, for one thing. Besides, by the end you're not feeling celebratory; the bruised and bleeding underdog has not emerged triumphant, he has merely survived to fight another day.
The film opens wide across the U.S. on Friday, September 9. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes. It will be opening in Estonia, France, Ireland, and the U.K. later this month.
Photo credits: Chuck Zlotnick. Opulence Studios - © 2011 - Lionsgate.