Hollywood’s latest heartstring-tugging movie, “Warrior,” knows how to marshal that magic excellently. Unfortunately, it’s also a beautiful, messy, wrenching portrait of the love that exists within a completely shattered family, the kind of movie where everyone is good and bad at the same time and there’s too much pain and emotional shrapnel for a pure win to ever really be possible.
Though the movie has moments of startlingly beautiful excellence that suggest it could have been either a marvelous sports movie or realistic family drama, the two genres make completely opposite demands of both the characters and audience. Trying to fit them both on the screen at the same time results in a powerful, divided movie that can never quite be great.
In its heart, I suspect that “Warrior” is really the heartbreaking family portrait. Nick Nolte’s raw performance as a recovering alcoholic who is desperate for his two grown sons to forgive him is subtle, nuanced, and so utterly realistic-seeming that it can be almost physically painful to watch.
He started the crack that eventually broke the bond between his two sons, fighter-turned-teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) and damaged war hero Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy).
Brendan, a family man who has money troubles due to a daughter’s medical bills, is the most stable of the three. Edgerton plays a man with a deep, old well of anger he’s learned to live with, eased enough by the love for his wife and children that leaves him almost affable and beloved by all his students. In a pinch, though, he goes back into the ring, fueled by the survivor’s instinct of a perpetual underdog who refuses to give up.
Tommy, a deeply damaged vet, gets a few too many secrets piled on his shoulders than either he or the movie needs. Hardy plays him like a man barely holding himself together, anger and rage serving as a solid, impenetrable shield to hide the enormous emotional fractures you can constantly see widening behind his eyes.
He’s capable of being almost frightening, the rage striking out without anything to hold it back, but the biggest worry is that he’ll shatter completely before anyone can break through the anger to get to him.
The movie rests on the push and pull of anger, love, and the yearning for forgiveness between the three men, rebuffed offers for coffee and silent anguish in the eyes of men who barely know how to give words to it.
The final fight, between the two brothers, is as painful as a no-holds-barred therapy session, and though the end brought tears to my eyes there’s about a dozen plot threads left that are simply hanging as the credits role.
Admittedly, real relationships are far too complicated to ever be resolved in a big finale, but here it seemed more like the end point was chosen as a nod to the dramatic final shot in a sports movie than an acknowledgement of real-life messiness.
Which, in the end, is the problem. The movie has all the training montages, shots of cheering loved ones, and athletic bonding moments you would expect of an actual sports movie, and does them well. Even better, it gives you more than one edge-of-your-seat, full-throated cheer-inducing fight, including a knock-down, drag-out with the heavily-favored, terrifying world champion that ends up being just as richly satisfying as the ending of any movie I’ve ever seen.
In “Warrior,” though, it isn’t the ending — it’s the second-to-last fight, and in the final battle between the brothers there’s not a shred of the go-fight-win dynamics that makes a good sports movie such a crowd pleaser. It’s horrible watching the brothers beat up on one another, horrible seeing the pain on their faces as they both slowly realize that neither of them wants to be there any more than we want to be seeing it.
And in the end, you know full well that it doesn’t matter which one of them wins the fight. The only thing that will seem like victory is a little bit of forgiveness between them.