Unhappy the Land
Warrior hits the screen as Greek tragedy manqué, a saga of economic recession and mixed martial arts. Its gritty first half exposes the vanishing hopes of working-class Americans through the truncated Conlon family, widower Frank (Nick Nolte), and his two sons, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy. The family revisits old wounds and options for survival narrow into hatred and distrust. Each man is trapped within his own conception of what masculinity entails, and none sees his own angst reflected in another. It’s a compelling portrait of recessionary America.
But the movie cannot escape the curse of the sports movie or the lure of fantastic and the triumphant individual. From thought-provoking beginnings, it descends into a parable of escape and personal redemption that ends up ignoring its economic context. By its feel-good end, Warrior is more a symptom of our survival-of-the-fittest society than critique.
As Brendan tries to escape his background through education, transforming himself into home-owning, public-school-teaching suburbanite, Tommy seeks the security of the military and its surrogate family. Both are inherently decent men, but they’re betrayed by their aspirations. After the chaos of combat, Tommy slinks home, an angry, disillusioned vet, while Brendan watches his respectable life evaporate into crushing debt. When all hope seems lost, the $5 million purse offered in the MMA tournament Sparta lures each back into the combat ring. That they will meet in the final is glaringly obvious from the start, but the journey to that arena is more nuanced.
For one thing, the script emphasizes the domestic entanglements. Neither Brendan nor Tommy can forgive Frank, himself a recovering-alcoholic relic of Pittsburgh’s industrial decline, for destroying the family. But each also blames the other as well. Brendan chose to leave with his mother, while Tommy stayed home and married his high school sweetheart. For Brendan, Tommy is the traitor who left him to grow up alone on the opposite side of the country and watch, again alone, his mother sicken and die.
This is melodrama, but it’s also well acted. And as in Rocky, the acting in Warrior transcends the clichés of the fight-flick. Playing the drunk who found sobriety too late to father his sons, Nolte dials down both his physical presence and vocal volatility. Nothing but a dogged determination to make amends seems to keep Frank alive. Nolte walks and talks and sits as if gravity itself were too heavy a burden for him: through every action, he signals his abject craving for any bridge to his kids, however humiliating the conditions, however brutal the rejections.
Early in the movie, Frank drives from Pittsburg to rural Pennsylvania to tell Brendan that this brother has returned from Iraq. Brendan meets his father in the driveway, and reminds him that he’s not welcome in his home. Frank slowly shrinks from a man bringing good news to a pleading wreck willing to abandon all dignity for any chance to see his grandchildren. As his body shows the pain of each rebuff, we see that Frank is beaten, but we also know he can never lie down.
This physical tenacity deepens Nolte’s portrait of Frank in an especially poignant scene. Although Frank has trained Tommy so well that he is moving swiftly through the Sparta tournament, the son’s virulent contempt for his father only increases with each success. After one particularly degrading row, Tommy finds Frank drunk again, chanting lines from Moby Dick (his favorite book, gratuitously symbolic) in a staggering, ranting hallucinatory state. Nolte flails dangerously at his demons, revealing for a seismic instant the violent father both boys feared as children.
Hardy matches Nolte move for move. Tommy seems hunched within himself throughout the movie, his every muscle tense, as if waiting for that one wrong word or gesture that will trigger his explosion. And yet, when Nolte collapses into his arms, the tension evaporates. The expected catharsis almost looks accidental, as Tommy puts his barely conscious father to bed, then arranges his folds his hands across his chest, the first gentle touch between father and son. This is not reconciliation, but it is a temporary truce, perhaps the most for which either man can hope, accentuated by a watery white light that flows from the bedroom window across the still figures on the bed.
That directorial gesture reflects the quality of Gavin O’Connor’s work throughout Warrior, not simply in the virtuoso combat scenes, with their rich choreography, but also in the sustained scenes of emotional combat. Still, the movie is in the end caught up by in its plot. Instead of dissecting the media’s desire to find heroes everywhere, Warrior celebrates it. As it hurtles towards an ending that answers none of the questions early scenes raise, it recalls the same facile search for ephemeral consolation Bertolt Brecht mourned in his play, Life of Galileo. When Andrea del Sarto complains, “Unhappy the land that breeds no heroes,” Galileo replies, “No, Andrea: unhappy the land that needs a hero.” The same might be said of America in 2011.