We all know that Netflix Instant Watch isn't home to the greatest films. Every now and then you come across a gem or an old classic - but for the most part, Netflix ensures that your Instant Queue is filled with average, mediocre, take-it-or-leave-it movies.
Warrior, I was expecting the knock-off UFC version of The Fighter or The Wrestler. Even after glancing at the very favorable reviews on Rotten Tomatoes during the opening credits, I was still skeptical.
Color me surprised. To quote director Gavin O'Connor, Warrior is "not a fight movie" - not entirely. Its tremendous depth makes it every bit as good as the above films; in fact, it's one of the best I've seen in years.
The opening frames - an image of rosary beads dangling from a rear view mirror - sets the stage for our introduction to Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a former boxer and alcoholic that, in his effort to stay on the wagon, listens to an audio book of Melville's American classic Moby Dick while traveling to and from a local church in a gray, unremarkable town. (This isn't the only literary reference in the film - we see a framed photo of Nietzsche up on a trainer's wall, and books by Hemingway on Paddy's shelf.) Paddy's return home one evening is interrupted by a surprise visitor - his estranged son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), who has a brown bag full of liquor, a pocket full of pills, and some questions for his father.
We learn that Tommy, an ex-Marine, had been with his mother - Paddy's ex-wife - when she died a painful death. "You could've heard about her coughing up blood in a shit box with no heat. Having me rub her down with holy water, because she didn't have no insurance. All the while waiting for your pal Jesus to save her."
This tense first scene sets the stage for Warrior. The acting is solid and moving, the writing understated and elegant, and the direction masterful. Most importantly, the feeling is drilled into the audience earlier on that there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye.
But there is a current of drama that subtly rises beneath all of the action. Brendan faces off with his father in his family's backyard, also apparently for the first time in years, and spurns his attempt at affection and conversation; Tommy converses with a fallen Marine's wife, and tries to bury an act of bravery that he knows involves his own cowardice; and after being mocked and yelled at by his son, Paddy relapses in a hotel room.
But an even weightier conflict comes toward the end when, after facing off on an Atlantic City beach to revisit the dissolution of their family so many years ago, the two brothers confront each other in the cage.
This may seem like a predictable plot twist, but it's actually a remarkable innovation that defies the conventions of this kind of fight-flick. Even while we see familiar sights - the cheering wife, the pumped-up coach, the wild crowd, the supportive co-workers and friends - the audience's heart is being pulled in two directions.
As director Gavin O'Connor says in an interview, "in most of these films, you know who you're rooting for when it starts, and you go on the journey. What I was attempting to do was say, okay so you're rooting for this person, and you're rooting for this person. And these two people are on a collision course...to fight each other. Now what? And that is emotionally complex...how the hell are you gonna resolve this?"
The answer to that question lies in the deeper currents of the film, which are hinted at - not only in the first frame, but also the last, which appears to be an image of Mary tattooed on Tommy's shoulder. "Warrior is not a fight movie," O'Connor states emphatically in an interview. "It’s about spiritual redemption and healing." This transcendent dimension of the film, according to O'Connor, came from the influence of a close friend named Charles "Mask" Lewis who helped him start an apparel company called "Soul of a Lion" (a name which pops up on clothing throughout the film). That title stood for "the absolute number one in Charles’s life" - and though he passed away after being hit by a drunk driver, Lewis had apparently reignited O'Connor's interest in his own Catholic upbringing.
The resolution is breathtaking, as O'Connor unfurls this vision of "spiritual redemption" on the audience like a tidal wave. The conflict in the audience's heart explodes into joy - a joy that makes the prize money totally meaningless. As O'Connor puts it in an online interview, "the person who wins needs to win. And the person who loses, that's his win...he needs to surrender. He needs to die at the hands of his brother to be reborn." With Tommy's tap-out and Brendan's last words on-screen - "I"m sorry" and "I love you" - all of the rage and angst of the former wrestling champ and Marine hero is surrendered; all of Brendan's fears of losing his house, his health, and his long-lost brother vanish; and Paddy watches, stunned and overjoyed, as his two sons march away from the fight, out of breath, battered, bloodied - and reconciled.
Five stars. KO. Warrior is a winner.