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When we first meet Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) at the start of Warrior, he’s leaving church to while away the drive home with an audiobook of Moby Dick. The prominent placement of that particular tome in a narrative more or less screams metaphor, though who’s filling the role of Ahab takes a moment to pin down.


Paddy’s alcoholism and abusiveness long ago splintered his family. But by now his demons have run their course, leaving Paddy with old age, regrets, and an earnest if often thwarted desire to make amends. Nor is it Paddy’s elder son Brendan (Joel Edgerton), happily ensconced in the family life, who’s only real struggle is determining how much of his old capacity for violence he should reawaken in order to provide for his wife and daughters.

That leaves the younger Conlon son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), who shows up on Paddy’s doorstep after a fourteen-year absence. Stooped and hulking, with his head thrown to one side as if perpetually expecting a blow, Tommy operates through a wall of bitterness, sarcasm, and a thick Pittsburghese accent that occasionally renders him almost incomprehensible. He despises his father, resents his older brother (he blames Brendan for abandoning him and his mother) and loathes himself for his inability to escape the damage they’ve all done to one another. After his turn as Eames, the dapper master of disguise in Inception, Hardy’s performance here is something close to a wonder. It’s an amazingly precise evocation, through physicality, of a particular personality type. I’ll be very interested to see how he handles Bale in The Dark Knight Rises.

Paddy does his best to help, and Nolte’s evocation throughout the film of stoicism in the face of both Tommy and Brendan’s contempt is some of the best and most heart-rending work I’ve seen him do. But Tommy is thoroughly unimpressed by both his father’s newfound faith and his nearly one thousand days of sobriety.

What he needs is purpose, which he discovers in Sparta, a mixed martial arts tournament to be held in Atlantic City. He even takes Paddy on as his trainer, since, in Tommy’s telling, coaching was the one thing his father was actually good for. In a subtle nod to the early career of real life MMA fighter Kimbo Slice, Tommy is also caught on camera giving a thorough beatdown to one of the sport’s pre-eminent middleweight contenders during a sparing match at a local gym, and the video goes viral. As a complete neophyte, I found the movie’s construction of MMA’s world and culture convincing – it brings in real life announcers and wrestlers in bit parts – and I respected it’s honesty about the violence and dangers of the sport, and the savagery of temperament it can demand of its players.

Brendan, meanwhile, has set aside his teenage career as a fighter to teach physics at a local high school. When the bank informs him that he is underwater on his mortgage – in a painfully blunt scene dealing with the realities of the housing collapse – Brendan returns to the ring to make some extra money. Then the discovery of his side job forces his reluctant principle to suspend Brendan without pay for the semester, leaving him with no options outside of foreclosure or Sparta’s $5 million cash prize.

What unfolds from there on out is a spare and well-crafted narrative, in which the two brothers rise through the levels of the tournament towards a final confrontation with both one another and the wreckage of their family. The film is smart enough to hold off most of the fights until its characters’ natures and emotional investments have been well established; it evokes clichés without wallowing in them; and it paints its gritty narrative in broad strokes while letting the actors color in the gaps. Though the film comes close to overdoing its pathos with the tragic backstory of Tommy’s tour as a marine in Iraq — as well as the Moby Dick references — it never grossly missteps.

The fights here are not simply wannabe action movie distractions, but serve as physical contexts for the expression of character and emotional choices. Older and capable, but not a prodigy, Brendan’s style is essentially that of Rocky. Hen absorbs enormous amounts of punishment from more powerful and brutal fighters, while waiting for them to tire and provide him his opening to strike. Tommy is all coiled and seething purpose, ignoring the crowds as he takes no more time and energy than is needed to walk to the cage, thrash his opponents, and depart just as quickly.

The performances, the music, the substantive investment in the character, and the logical processes of the fights are all well orchestrated by co-writer and director Gavin O’Connor. The result, in the film’s final minutes when Brendan makes his last desperate plea to Tommy, is a moment of remarkably stirring transcendence. Sometimes, when those we love succumb to their inner Ahab, what is required of us is to ride with them down through the hell and the fury, all the way to the end.