I can’t quite decide if Warrior is an example of a well done movie that didn’t work for me personally, or an almost well done movie with a serious flaw. Suffice to say that if somebody told me it was their favorite movie of all time, I would consider that a point in favor of their taste, but I doubt I’ll be able to watch it all the way through again.
Its a story of two brothers who became estranged over their alcoholic, abusive father. Of the brothers, Brendan, the older, is by far the better adjusted. He has a wife and family, he has successfully cut his father out of his life, and also forgiven him. One of the things I love about the movie is that the writers seem to understand that its possible to forgive an abuser, yet still choose to keep them out of your life. Although their father seems to be partially reformed, the movie does not present this as an argument for either brother letting him back into their lives. It understands that when that trust is broken, the mere fact that somebody got therapy and discovered religion does not repair it. The younger brother, Tommy, is far more maladjusted. He goes through the movie a wound up ball of anger and hurt. He smiles once in the entire movie, when he’s on the phone with his dead best friend’s wife, and its a tortured smile, a smile with tears in it. The difference between the two is a choice each made when they were teenagers. Their mother chose, finally, to leave. Tommy went with her, Brendan was supposed to but at the last minute decided to stay with his father, in part to be near his girlfriend. Arguably, Tommy made the smarter choice, but real life doesn’t always reward the smart choices. Brendan stuck the abuse out for a few years, moved out, grew up, married the girlfriend, became a physics teacher and had two daughters. His problems are the problems of the standard middle class; money, struggling to make ends meet, keeping his head high when the accountants tell him he’s ninety days away from being foreclosed on. That’s not to say he’s unscathed. Tommy was apparently the fighter, and the favorite, and Brendan has been left feeling like a perpetual underdog. This contributes to his unwillingness to make certain financial choices, like moving out of his house into a smaller, more affordable apartment. Tommy, on the other hand, got to helplessly watch his mother die. Then he joined the marines and watched his best friend die, by friendly fire no less. Then he ran away to the States, only to be hit by the reality that he has nothing. He’s broke, he’s lost contact with all his family, and the only friend he has is his best friend’s widow. He can’t depend on her, because he feels that she depends on him. He’s not just in financial trouble. Through no fault of his own, he’s been completely abandoned.
Both brothers choose the same solution to their financial problems. They sign up for a bit MMA tournament, winner take all. Tommy goes to his father to be trained, Brendan to an old friend. We in the audience know where this is going. Despite both being relative underdogs, they will beat all their opponents, until they have to fight each other for the pot. Both men deserve to win, but only one can.
A sidenote; this neatly sidesteps one of the key problems of the sports movie genre. Most sports movies can end in only one of two ways. Either the underdog will somehow win, or they will lose, but learn some important winning-is-not-everything lesson. Most of the time its the former, and its usually easy to see the latter coming. In this movie, you want both of them to win, and even more you don’t want either one to lose.
The bulk of the movie is a tension game. We slowly learn about the brothers, what makes them tick, what their strengths and weaknesses are. Its a very well done character study, and when it gets to the final fight the suspense is agonizing. Here’s the problem, for me at least. While both are sympathetic characters, they are so different I have no doubt that most people will have a favorite. Brendan wins, and the way he wins is so well done that, for those who liked him best, I’m sure it was a fantastic movie. Unfortunately, I empathized more with the more broken one. The worst time in my life was when I felt like my friends and family had abandoned me, and although I have nothing else in common with Tommy, my desire to see him heal was overwhelming. The movie tries to give him a good ending as well. The final shot of Brendan carrying a badly beaten Tommy out hints at a possible future where they reconnect. Its touching, but reality intrudes. Suspension of disbelief is a strange thing. Even in supposedly realistic films, we can ignore factual details, like how many shots a particular gun can fire or what topics are taught in sixth grade. Emotional realities are much harder to ignore. In the pulpier genres, we can suspend our belief a little bit, but any attempts at realism make that impossible. The paradox makes sense; stories are never about data, but human beings. The reaction to emotional breaks is instinctive. I did not choose to pick apart the ending. I felt a crushing disappointment, and analyzed it after the fact.
The movie tells us that after the fight Tommy will be court-martialed for desertion. They strongly imply a prison sentence. It doesn’t matter that Tommy and Brendan had, in the middle of a merciless beatdown, a short moment of reconciliation. He’s going in for a stretch of isolation of a brand-new type. Sure, maybe Brendan will visit him, maybe both of them will follow up on that moment, maybe when he comes out Tommy will have a family again. Or maybe not. Maybe Tommy’s emotional rawness will make him close up, and Brendan will become so exhausted trying to reach him that he gives up. Brendan is fully capable of backing out on his family when things get to be too much for him. I don’t fault him for that. I’ve been there, its a defense mechanism, and a damned essential one. Or maybe the two won’t have enough in common to fully connect. Happens all the time. My best friend happens to be my sister, but most people’s siblings are just siblings, familiar strangers who happen to share DNA. The closest family is always the family you choose, and Tommy has lost his family of choice.
The most frustrating thing about that is Tommy’s ending feels like the first act of a really good story. Brendan got a full arc, underdog to victor. Tommy got chased up a tree. That’s my new favorite metaphor for the three-act structure. Act one; chase ’em up a tree. Act two; throw rocks at them. Act three; cut down the tree. You put them in a bad situation, you make it worse, then you give them an unexpected resolution. He’s gone from a state of being isolated in an oddly safe way (safe in the sense of being able to numb himself, story beginnings thrive on that kind of unsatisfactory stability) to having the old wounds torn open, and being confined and re-isolated. He’s up a tree, but things could get so much worse for him. Nevermind all the trouble prison can bring. His family is back. Family rocks are the pointiest. He now has to change. That change could be to heal, or to grow newer, thicker scars, or just to die, literally or metaphorically. We don’t really know enough about him to know which way he will go, to know which side of the tree he will be on when it is cut down.
Now, many satisfying stories end with a supporting character’s arc unfulfilled, or with hints of what new stories may come for the main character. But no satisfying story ends with the main character’s arc unfulfilled. So is this Brendan’s story, Tommy’s story, or the story of the two of them? I suspect the writers were aiming for it to be a story for the both of them, and in that they failed. That doesn’t ruin the story, because those who are watching mainly for Brendan are in great shape. They got a good arc with a fascinating antagonist/secondary character.
But I really liked Tommy best.