Writer/co-director Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior” opens with an emotionally bruising scene that not only sets the tone of this intensely moving story but beautifully uses silence and what remains unspoken to communicate a gulf so wide between an estranged father and son that it seems impossible to bridge. Dad is Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a bear of a man who traded in the drink for the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Today, alone in his beat up, working class house, his only companion is the terrible cost abusive alcoholics pay for their sobriety, the memories of the physical and mental abuse inflicted on a family eventually lost.
The son is Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), a former Marine just home from Iraq, who didn’t drop by after fourteen years to see how dear dad was doing,. He’s here to hurt the old man in every way possible without laying a hand on him. Tommy expected to find a drunk, and Paddy’s sobriety only angers him more. Dad doesn’t deserve forgiveness, Christ’s or anyone else’s. Tommy is a seething young man made dysfunctional by the baggage he carries around like the bulk of his muscle — an unreachable force of anger and bitter resentment that extends to his older brother Brendan, as well.
Brendan didn’t run away from his father like Tommy and his mother. He was older, had a girlfriend, and had already planted the seeds of a life. Eventually, he married that girl, went to college, became a teacher, had kids, and bought a house. Though they’re very different in so many ways, Tommy and Brendan do at least have one thing in common. No matter how many days sober, they will never forgive their father.
Paddy is a former martial-arts trainer, and this experience is the only thing these three still have in common. For reasons I won’t spoil, Tommy needs to make some quick cash, and that means getting back into the octagon and the competitive world of mixed-martial arts. The same goes for Brendan (a former UFC contender) who refuses to accept charity or file a bankruptcy to save his family from financial ruin. “I don’t do things that way,” he tells a banker, and though he’s a little long in the tooth, into the octagon he goes looking for whatever prize money he can scrape up.
A number of those matches occur in sleazy strip bars, something the school administration doesn’t look kindly on. This leaves Brendan no choice but to fight full-time, and a winner-take-all $5 million championship is something that catches the eye of both brothers. Because Tommy asked Paddy to train him, this means that all three men will fight for more than prize money. The conflict they’ve been running from is now inevitable, and the fight will be between their shared demons for a resolution to the pain they’ve shared and inflicted on one another.
“Warrior” is one of the best films of the decade and one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in years. O’Connor directs a brilliant performance out of all three of his leads and never allows melodrama to rear its head. Nolte’s performance is especially impressive. We’re meeting a genuinely good man living with unimaginable regret, a Dr. Jekyll burdened by his monstrous behavior towards his wife and sons as Dr. Hyde. Everything comes from Nolte’s haunted eyes. This is the most restrained performance of his career and most certainly an Oscar-caliber performance.
“Warrior” is also a rare opportunity these days to see men act like men on the big screen. These are men doing what a man’s gotta do to right wrongs and meet their responsibilities. These are men of action, not talk, men with pride and honor and a sense of duty. They’re not perfect men, far from it, but they’re striving to be good men the only way they know how. This is also the rare Hollywood picture that treats the working class, our military, and the Christian faith with respect.
This is a film about big things, and I don’t mean the brutal world of mixed martial-arts. Like the very best sports films, the sport itself is nothing more than a vehicle to explore characters, their relationships, and a theme. “Warrior’s” theme is the most powerful element of the film, a living, breathing thing that grabs hold of your insides and tightens its hold as the story passes by. It’s not about who wins the tournament or even if Brendan can keep his house.
It’s about forgiveness.
“Warrior” is available at Amazon.com.