Punching at the Heart

I like to see a good boxing film. I always have. Part of me has argued that I accept boxing narratives because they don’t mask the brutality of men at battle with each other. No hiding behind a football or a basketball: boxing is fist-on-fist fighting for survival. Almost always set in the working class, boxing films provide a great arena in which to play out the struggles of men battling to survive by punching the daylights out of each other for money. This setting is ripe for allegories about trying to make do in an economic world that wants to beat them down. But boxing movies are more than just economic allegories. They also provide a place where myths of American masculinity rise to the fore, and ideas of honor, brotherhood, and strength are put to the test in the ring.

I went to see Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior expecting to see a classic struggle of the working class set in the ring, and I wasn’t disappointed. Set primarily in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the story of two working class Irish-American brothers battling personal and economic demons and their fraught relationship with their alcoholic father provides a powerful dose of classic storytelling about the desperate fight for survival in a world that has squeezed the working class to the margins. Warrior uses the classic boxing genre and a style that is an ode to a dying narrative cinema to deliver human feeling and heart with a powerful punch. It is American Realism and classic cinematic filmmaking brought to the 21st century by setting the battle in the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) where the two brothers end up fighting against each other in a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) contest called “Sparta” to determine who the “The Toughest Man On The Planet” is.  This battle calls into question what exactly the definition of “tough” is, and as the film escalates to a feverish intensity and the tears flow during its amazing climax, it becomes more and more clear that the idea of “tough” is part of the problem, not the solution.

No doubt, as the story of these two brothers and their drunken father unfolds, the movie traffics in clichés driven by cultural definitions of masculinity and what defines “tough.” But clichés are part of this kind of cinema. These masculine archetypes playing against each other in generic form are what allow access to the film and what make it a populist form of cinema that is able to be read in multiple ways by multiple audiences. Yes, Warrior is an allegory for economic survival where these brothers go against each other in the brutal physical world of UFC to try to win the purse. Body against body, they literally fight each other for money. Yes, Warrior is also a story of what it means to have to live up to myths of masculinity (and prove that you’re the “toughest man on the planet”). But in the end, it is also about releasing the emotions that American codes of masculinity repress. The two brothers – Tommy Reardon (played with furious intensity by Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (played with conflicting pathos by Joel Edgerton) – battle the violent legacy of masculinity (their recovered alcoholic father, played by a rugged and real Nick Nolte) by beating the shit out of each other and conquering the demons inside themselves. At the end of the day, blood has been spilt, bodies and hearts have been broken, and tears are falling instead of punches.

It is the tears that are somehow the most important physical part of this film, because ultimately boxing movies are melodramas for men. They are a place where primal masculinity is let out of its cultural cage as men pummel each other in the ring, providing a stage where emotion can be released by being couched in fists. Somehow, it’s culturally okay for men to cry and emote when fists are flying and blood is running; then it doesn’t break the “tough man” social contract. How ironic that the violent world of the boxing ring provides a “safe” place for men to let down their tough exterior and release their emotions and cry. In other words, boxing movies are men’s weepies, and Warrior is one hell of a gut-wrenching tear fest packed with a lot of tight fists and knock-outs.

The three main characters, Paddy Conlon (the former drunk dad), Tommy Reardon (the “war hero”), and Brendan Conlon (the teacher and good father) are certainly all archetypes, and it is within these archetypes that we can see American myths of masculinity come undone in a narrative that plays like a Shakespearean tragedy about fathers and sons. Paddy spends the movie obsessed with Moby Dick, listening to the story recited on old cassette tapes as outdated and obsolete as he is. This makes sense because Moby Dick is the ultimate American myth of failed masculinity, the story of the peg-legged Captain Ahab who obsessively hunts the white whale only to be defeated. Paddy hangs onto that story as if he needs to relive his own failure over and over again. His only chance for success is passing the baton of masculinity to the sons he alienated through his drunken violence when they were growing up. He literally attempted to beat manhood into them with his fists and sent them into the boxing ring to learn how to fight for themselves with their fists. Now all he can do is watch the damage that has been done while he pleas for redemption.

Tommy embodies the legacy of masculinity that both his father and his country beat into him. His entire body is bound like a cage with muscles, tattoos, and anger. A veteran of the Iraq War, he believed in the myth of honor and patriotism, but then was betrayed by his own country. The savior of his abused mother, he believed in the myth of the honorable son. But his mother died in pain, and he couldn’t help her. All of Tommy’s heroism comes to nothing but a legacy of violence and betrayal. He is alone. His mother is dead. He is alienated from his father, his brother and his country.

Tommy’s brother Brendan is a different story. While Tommy stays solidly in the working class, Brendan attempts to transcend his class and his family history by going to college, getting a respectable job as a physics teacher, and raising a family in a house in the suburbs. His cool rationality is the counterweight to Tommy’s passionate fury. Outwardly, Brendan seems to have transcended his working-class background, yet his dream of being the good father and the professional working man of honor also fails as he is forced to fight in parking lots to bring home enough money to save his house from foreclosure. His wife Tess tells him, “We’re no longer going to be a family where the father gets beat up for a living.” However, economic reality doesn’t make that possible; “getting beat up for a living” (if you’re lucky enough to have a job) is the norm not the exception in the current economy. America has become a place where fighting for survival literally and figuratively plays out in parking lots. It is a place where the underclass and the middle class (like Brendan) pick up their fists in an attempt to hold onto an American Dream that has ceased to hold any validity.

Tommy and Brendan are both betrayed by the system. While Tommy is betrayed by his country when his platoon is shot down and killed by American soldiers, Brendan is betrayed by the banks and political economy that deny him economic stability. Whatever “respect” and “honor” Brendan thinks he achieved by getting an education, becoming a teacher and buying a house in the suburbs don’t mean shit when the banks are going to take his house away, so he literally has to fight to survive. After all, teachers are just another part of America’s massive growing underclass, and Brendan’s ideal of being a family man is hard to sustain in a collapsing economy that is rapidly strangulating the underclasses.

Despite their obvious differences, it is impossible to take sides with one of these two brothers. The film does an amazing job of luring us into their lives and staking our emotional investment in their characters. We know the brothers will end up in the ring fighting against each other, and we are compelled to cheer for both of them. Tommy and Brendan are equal protagonists, fighting against each other in a system that puts them in an impossible position and puts us as the audience in an impossible position as well, prompting us to choose sides when Tommy and Brendan are both on the same side. We want both of them to win, even though we realize having two winners isn’t possible and that the brothers are fighting in a socioeconomic system where the odds of either one of them “winning” are rapidly decreasing.

The brothers are literally picking up their fists trying to stake their ground in an environment crumbling under them, and we are fighting with them. They fight because it is all they have left in the fight for survival. Their father has failed; the government has failed; the economy has failed; the American dream has failed; patriotism and patriarchy have failed; what are they left with other than using their bodies as weapons against each other? Masculinity, honor and the wide ranging concept of brotherhood are all called into question when the reality of survival comes to the fore. What makes Warrior so interesting is that we get to see how and why two good guys end up fighting against each other and realize, with a shudder, that only one of them can prevail.

The film sets up a series of oppositions within the brothers to cast the story in broader political and economic terms. While the boxing genre has been around since the earliest days of cinema, Warrior take a classic film and places it firmly in the economic reality of the 21st century by placing the battle within UFC (the corporate enterprise that packages, broadcasts, controls and profits from MMA competitions). As such, the film uses its story of the two brothers to mold a classic genre tale into an allegory of the conflict between the traditional American working-class and the twenty-first century global economy that is threatening to render that class obsolete. Tommy trains in an old boxing club in his dad’s neighborhood. He follows the traditional regime of boxers, pounding away at bags in a gritty ring, heaving tires by the river, and running through the streets of working-class Pittsburgh. Brendan, on the other hand, trains in the glossy high-tech arena of Mixed Martial Arts which is linked directly to the corporate enterprise of the UFC. Tommy relies on the techniques of traditional American boxing which relies on force, fists and muscle (working class); Brendan is a strategist who utilizes a repertoire of mixed martial arts from around the globe (global capital). Reading the two characters in these terms, the end result becomes relatively easy to predict.

There are no overt bad guys in the movie, which is one of the things that makes the film so captivating. There is no big corrupt mob boss rigging the fight. No abusive trainer exploiting the fighter. Even the formerly abusive, alcoholic dad is portrayed with sympathy. The villains are the quiet forces that have pushed these two brothers together in the ring – the failing economy, the politics that drive wars and business, and an entire system that has failed the working class. But these components are all delivered with subtlety through Tommy and Brendan’s characters. It is the impersonal forces that sent Tommy to war and threaten Brendan with foreclosure that create the dilemma in the film. But because Warrior is populist cinema, it weaves its political points into the plight of its characters. The spotlight stays focused on the good guys and never once lets us forget the impossibility of their situation and never lets our sympathies for both main characters waver.

One of the things that makes Warrior so compelling to watch is that it is situated very much within the environment of the “real” rather than the “fantastical.” Even if it is a melodrama deploying archetypes, the film operates like cinematic naturalism. The movie looks and feels like the gritty anti-Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. Yes, it exaggerates and simplifies, but in a way that makes things seem more real. The legacy of naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser saturates the story. It has the grit of a classic working class narrative, yet it is propelled into the new global economy by placing it within the arena of Mixed Martial Arts with the backdrop of housing foreclosures (Brendan) and the Iraq War (Tommy).

The lighting and mise-en-scène shifts in the movie as it moves back and forth between the two brothers representing two sides of the economic divide. When the camera is on Tommy, filming slows down; the light is darker, and the scenes are gritty with the hard labor of the working class. When the camera shifts to Brendan, the gym is brightly lit, full of new technology, fast moving cameras, and the sheen of capital. The style of filming shifts as the movie moves between the old economy (Tommy) and the new economy (Brendan).

Casting a classic boxing genre film within the arena of mixed martial arts and UFC is critical to understanding the economic forces at play in this narrative. UFC brings international fighting techniques into the ring where men beat the living shit out of each other for a chance at a big purse, not unlike the economic playing field of the 21st century global economy. UFC’s mix of fighting styles from across the globe and its lax regulations regarding who can participate place UFC within the arena of the new deregulated global economy.  Traditional American boxing, on the other hand, is very much rooted in the American working and lower classes.  George Bellows (a painter who was a contemporary of Theodore Dreiser) did a whole series of paintings of boxers as allegories of the fight of the American immigrant working class (a class which Brendan and Tommy are heir to).

The movie plays these two fighting sports (MMA and boxing) against each other to quietly stage its setting within a new economy that is driving the American working class off the playing field. By placing its central conflict within the context of UFC, with Tommy coming from traditional boxing and going against his brother Brendan who has been MMA trained, the movie becomes a story about the fight of the working class within the violent arena of the free trade global market. UFC is a “global enterprise” that promotes a no-holds-barred – almost literally – hybrid spectator sport to generate violence and big dollars (not unlike the forces of global capital itself).  Although UFC has many working-class fans, Warrior shows how it is really just another giant global corporation that exploits men for profit. The difference, of course, is that the forces that pit workers against each other throughout the business world are made brutally visceral. This is the true face of the competition that beats workers down, bloody and bruised.

When the fighting finally comes, we can’t help but get sucked into the drama. Because we know that Brendan and Tommy are going to eventually fight each other, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a battle for economics. This is a battle for redemption wrapped in grand spectacle. This is not just a story about who survives and who doesn’t, about the old economy versus the new economy, but it is a story about the violent legacy of American codes of masculinity and about needing to reconcile blood with blood. The fight scenes build and build to a feverish pitch as the audience grows wild needing to see men fight men for money as if it will provide them escape from their own economic problems. In economic terms, it should be no surprise that the new school wins. The tragic body of the old school (Tommy) is brought down with one swift MMA kick by his own crying brother. The scene is utterly heartbreaking. One brother literally has to beat the shit out of the other to survive, the whole time saying, “I love you, Tommy,” while the impotent father looks on.

Certainly the system has failed these men. None of the codes they were conditioned to believe in held true. In a heartbreaking moment that represents both tremendous defeat and redemption, Brendan carries the bloody and beaten body of his brother out of the ring, showing us that the new school reigns. In this moment, the brothers break ties from the past that have kept them down, but they also desperately hold onto each other in a system that forced one of them to beat the other to defeat. Sure, their arms are around each other, but they are sealed in blood. What kind of honor comes from a system where you kick in your brother’s head in to survive?

Warrior is an emotional knock-out of movie. It is furious storytelling with a purpose, a dying kind of cinema that tells the story of a dying class. It is a movie about the impossibility of survival in a world where jobs and economic stability are becoming extinct, and men have to fight each other to survive. It is a movie about the economic war being waged on the working class, the literal war being waged in the Middle East, and the battle of love and family to survive in this ferocious landscape. After all those punches and kicks are thrown, the movie comes back to the heart of the struggle. This is a movie about men in their environment fighting their demons, fighting the system, fighting each other and trying to come out on top.

Sure, Warrior manipulates clichés and archetypes, but that’s what cinematic genre does and why it’s effective. We know these characters. They are familiar to us. We care about them. By keeping its politics quiet and its focus on the lead characters, the movie is accessible to all audiences who can relate to these struggles. Warrior uses generic cinema to punch a point home, and that punch would be hard for anyone not to feel.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published a book of her art Mapping The Inside Out and is finishing a photo essay book on copper mining towns in Southern Arizona. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.