Saturday, February 4, 2012

Movie Review: Warrior

Tom Hardy (left) and Joel Edgerton
Warrior (2011)
Directed By: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte

Warrior is an emotionally rich family drama disguised as a film about a mixed martial arts tournament. To overlook director Gavin O'Connor's quiet masterpiece as just another "fighting movie" would be a mistake. Beneath all the masculine angst is a touching look at the ties that bind family together.

Skillfully built around meticulously constructed character studies, Warrior looks in on the family dynamics of three men -- two estranged brothers and their recovering alcoholic of a father. We're first introduced to Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte); a Moby Dick-obsessed former wrestler who is 1,000 days sober and looking to mend his fractured ties with his sons, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). More than 10 years ago, Paddy drove his sons away -- his debilitating alcoholism and abuse towards their mother resulting in severed family ties. Each son dealt with their pain separately -- Brendan by getting married and starting his own family and Tommy by joining the Marines and leaving his life behind. When Paddy learns that Tommy (appearing out of the blue after years of absence) wants his help to train for Sparta, an upcoming mixed martial arts event in Atlantic City where the winner takes home $5 million, he agrees -- seeing it as a chance to reconnect with his younger son. Tommy has his own personal reasons for needing the money -- reasons that are only slowly revealed to the audience. At the same time, in another city, Brendan is preparing for the same Sparta tournament; with his house facing foreclosure and having to support an ailing daughter, he decides to return to his amateur fighting roots, much to his wife's (Jennifer Morrison) disappointment.

Warrior is a performance piece -- each of the three leads carry the emotional weight of the story on their shoulders. O'Connor, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, slowly lets his story unfurl through intimate conversations between characters. It's only gradually that their secrets and their pasts are revealed; a fine example of character building. There are multiple open wounds in the Conlon clan and what the Sparta tournament ultimately becomes for them is a physical release for years of pent-up emotion and rage.

Nolte received a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his complex portrayal of a once-brutal man trying to make amends with the sons he drove away so long ago. It's a wonderful performance that avoids taking the easy route by making him a completely sympathetic figure -- his actions towards his now-deceased wife were brutal and his sons are right to still be wary about forgiving him.

Tom Hardy (left) and Joel Edgerton
Edgerton (an up-and-coming Aussie actor) gives a breakout performance as the older Conlon sibling. A dedicated family man, he makes the greater effort to reach out to Tommy once his younger brother comes back into his life. It's a quietly commanding performance, one that will likely result in lead roles down the road.

As Tommy, Hardy is an angry and frustrated loner. A former Marine who returns home to the realization that the only people he has left in his life are a father and brother he severed ties with, Tommy's only release for years of anger and hurt feelings is the therapeutic release that comes with cage fighting. Hardy is the revelation here -- it's an underrated performance in an underrated film. He doesn't just look or sound the part (perfectly masking his British accent), he feels the part. It's the rare performance that makes you forget you are watching an actor and not a real, struggling human being.

Warrior avoids the cliches so common in tales about a struggling underdog. It's a film about blood, sweat and tears and, as a result, is one of the most emotionally engaging films of the year. O'Connor and his co-screenwriters bring a perfect balance to all three roles, allowing the audience to get to know each of them slowly. This balance is most keenly felt when it comes to Brendan and Tommy -- both are good, decent men trying to do the right thing. It doesn't ask the audience to choose between the brothers, likely because it would be next to impossible to do. Instead, it closes in on their journey to forgiveness and how their paths -- once so separated -- are finally coming together. Brendan and Tommy are tough guys, yet you like them so much because of their moments of fragility.

In the end, Warrior is less about the fight than the means of finding forgiveness and redemption. It's a movie about family -- specifically brotherly love. The climax is so emotionally resonant that it's impossible not to get invested in its outcome. It's more than just a sports drama; it's about the family ties that bind us together. Simply put, Warrior is a story well told.