A mournful meditation on killing for a living, Asif Kapadia’s film is by turns poetic and preachy. It’s also unexpectedly gripping, as it follows the crisis of conscience suffered by a Rajput mercenary, and his efforts to make sense of his remorse and the bloody horrors he’s left in his wake.
Lafcadia (Irfan Khan) first appears practicing his ancient art, wielding his sword in the India’s northwestern desert, perfecting his murderous stroke. As the early scenes reveal, he is his warlord’s (Anupam Shyam) most efficient, most ruthless minion, willing to menace, rape, behead, and slice up peasants who fall behind on taxes as well, as well as show off his skills while fighting other warriors. Commanding his men, including the ambitious Biswas (Aino Annuddin), with deft assurance, he rebuffs his son Katiba’s (Puru Chibber) pleas to come along for a raid, less because he wants to protect him than because the boy is unable to keep track of his grandfather’s dagger. Efficiency and self-awareness: the warrior’s most useful skills.
As efficient as he has been over his long and fearful career, Lafcadia’s will to change comes on him with a rush. Having arrived at the site of his latest raid, a village where again, payments have fallen behind, he faces a young girl, even as his men whirl and strike down unarmed folks around him. Time seems to freeze and fly at once: Lafcadia is suddenly surrounded by snow and wind, then heat and dust, not to mention ghosts of his many victims. Though he sees now that he must stop, his growly lord sees his decision as disloyalty (“No one leaves my service”), and sends Lafcadia’s own men to execute him. As Lafcadia has already sworn “never [to] lift a sword again,” he’s left at rather a disadvantage with the vengeance-takers.
Alone and bereft, the warrior endeavors to lose himself in the Himalayas, along the way stumbling on two figures who judge him very differently. A young thief, Riaz (Noor Mani), sees in the warrior a model of virility and courage, whereas a blind woman (Damayanti Marfitia) rejects his help and announces, “You have blood written all over your face.” Try as he might, Lafcadia is unable to escape his past, which means he must return to the violence he has renounced in order to save someone else.
Though its themes are hackneyed (or perhaps timeless, depending on your point of view), The Warrior is sustained by Roman Osin’s stunning cinematography (featuring several objective correlatives—endless horizons, desolate desertscapes, smoldering, post-attack villages—as well as Khan’s face, which fills the frame repeatedly. Working a backstory that draws from Sergio Leone and Akira Kurusowa movies, Lafcadia combines ferocity and vulnerability in a way that more than makes up for his lack of dialogue.
It’s worth wondering, for a minute, why this 2001 film is only now being released in the U.S. Yes, the release has to do with Miramax’s current “fire sale” of all its long-shelved titles. But why has it languished for so long? It’s tempting to speculate that perhaps execs worried that its brutality was excessive (though the most violent acts take place off screen), or that its overt rejection of retribution was a hard sell following 9/11. Or maybe it was only that it had Anthony Minghella’s name attached (as in, “presents”).
Whatever the reasoning, The Warrior offers serious consideration of the tolls exacted by violence, whether directed against helpless victims or worthy foes, and even when the aggressor presumes his righteousness, as an employee, a man acting according to duty. But what happens when the warrior can’t claim innocence in “just doing his job”? At once the film’s most provocative and poignant question, this indictment of the warrior dissolves conventional viewer sympathy or identification, and leaves all kinds of room for doubt.