Top Ten of 2011, #3: Warrior, Gavin O’Connor

Warrior, by Gavin O’Connor, does something very rare for a sports movie; it almost equally develops two main characters, both heading into the ring for the big finale at the climax.  You may ultimately have a favorite between the two, but it makes the final match extremely emotionally-loaded, because no matter who wins, the audience is also set up to emotionally identify with the loser.

In addition to that narrative hook, Warrior has one more unique story element– the fact that both of the final contenders are brothers.  It’s almost too much, really– too clever and too precious.  But O’Connor is a hell of a director, and he’s working with some top notch acting talent.  The two brothers are played by Brit Tom Hardy (Inception, Bronson, RocknRolla, This Means War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) and Aussie Joel Edgerton (Smokin’ Aces, The Square, Animal Kingdom, The Thing, and the upcoming The Great Gatsby) and their father by the inestimable Nick Nolte.  All three are capable of incredible emotional depths while keeping things very natural and effortless.  For Nolte’s part, it might be the best work of his career, and as good as Christopher Plummer was in Beginners, Nolte was robbed for not taking home the Oscar this year.  Hardy channels Brando circa The Wild One, all muscular pathos and pain, still trying to break free of a dysfunctional childhood that has left him emotionally crippled and really unable to stand up and be his own man.  Edgerton has a family of his own, and for him it’s about being able to provide for his family and not buckle under the weight of economic hardship.  He’s determined to be the father and have the family that he never had, and he’s willing to fight for it if it kills him.

The backstory has to do with the fact that Nolte was a raging alcoholic and his wife left him, taking the youngest son, Tommy (Hardy) with her.  Brendan (Edgerton) was old enough to be on his own, for the most part, so he chose to stay behind with their father, and before too long left home himself.  But Tommy had to endure homelessness and his mother’s drug addiction until she died, then ended up going into the military.  Tommy holds a lot of resentment towards both his father and his brother for not being there for him, and allowing him to suffer the amount of abuse and neglect he went through.  All of this sets the stage for both contenders to take an emotionally-fueled climb through the MMA ranks in a cage match in Las Vegas for a huge payout.  Brendan’s in it for his family and out of financial necessity; Tommy’s in it to prove something to himself and try to take back control of his destiny and his one-time potential to be a fighter of incredible promise.

The fights here are intense and very realistically-staged, and O’Connor smartly starts wide and with a lot of long shots during the sequential matches.  As the film reaches its conclusion, the coverage keeps creeping in tighter and closer, making the successive fights increasingly intimate and personal.  It’s a technique that really serves the film overall, as well as deeply connecting us to both Tommy and Brendan.  And that’s really where the film succeeds and gains so much of its power.  On the surface it may be a sports film, but underneath that is an incredibly personal and emotionally raw story about family and what we can and should do for each other.  Frank Grillo as a friend of Brendan’s who agrees to be his trainer, and Jennifer Morrison as Brendan’s wife, both turn in great performances as well.  Morrison is underutilized, but still manages to make her limited screen time one of the best performances of her career.

O’Connor previously directed Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds, the hockey movie Miracle, and a theatrically mishandled cop movie called Pride and Glory that starred Colin Farrell and Edward Norton. O’Connor has a real knack for taking solid but often predictable Hollywood scripts and turning them on their ear slightly, transforming them into something truly special.  Warrior is a shining example of that, with O’Connor raising the bar even further and finding new heights.  Much of Warrior is heartbreaking, and there probably hasn’t been a sports movie that emotionally connects as cleanly and powerfully since the original Rocky.



The Grey, Joe Carnahan (2012)

Easily Carnahan’s best film since his debut Narc, The Grey manages to integrate substance with the sharp style on display in the likes of Smokin’ Aces and The A-TeamThe A-Team was pure, unadulterated Hollywood fun, while Smokin’ Aces was both more and less, possessed of an idiosyncratic anarchism that left it beholden to nothing, but that also ultimately made it a purposeless exercise in stylishness.  Nevertheless, throughout his career, Carnahan has demonstrated a real skill at casting, as well as working with his actors.  And that’s a large part of the reason that The Grey works so well.  Still, I have a couple of friends who are animal lovers, the kind who have to know before a movie if an animal is going to appear to be hurt onscreen.  I’d definitely recommend those people stay away from The Grey, as too much of this film will make them angry, emotionally distressed, or both.

What’s doubly effective is the way The Grey‘s emotional themes play off of the real-life tragedy that befell Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson.  Here, Neeson’s character Ottway has lost a love of his own.  We don’t know the circumstances of it, at least not until the end of the film, but throughout we get some sense that he was abandoned by his love, or that he was incapable of being there for her and that she left him.  Either way, the character is full of grief and regret, longs to do something to save their relationship, but appears unable to successfully follow through.  So he’s allowed himself to be punished by the elements at the ends of the earth in retribution, working with oil rig teams in Alaska, shooting the wolves that occasionally attack them.  But it’s obvious that Ottway feels a kinship to the animals he kills, probably more so than with other humans, and hates himself for being their murderer.  He’s caught in a forever deepening cycle of self-hatred and despair, and suicide seems like it may be his only escape and solace.

I think it’s interesting that such a talented actor as Neeson, who’s been in so much Academy Award bait, has, since the death of his wife, appeared mainly in genre films.  I think it’s not unlikely that the best way for him to work through his personal tragedy is to give himself situations that play to it, that are visceral and allow him to face his own despair, grief, rage, loneliness, purposelessness, and godlessness.  And this is certainly a movie and a role that draw directly from those dark and pained waters.  Watching it, and watching the emotional and spiritually existential struggles of Ottway, it’s difficult not to feel for Neeson himself.  And so Carnahan has a movie with a lot more emotional depth and subtext that the likes of Smokin’ Aces or The A-Team.

A character without the will to live can be a fascinating one, particularly when thrown into a situation of pure physical survival.  As everyone probably knows from the trailers, Ottway boards a plane with several dozen of his oil rig compatriots, and it goes down.  Only a handful survive the plane crash.  And then it’s a struggle for survival against the elements.  And the wolves.  Whether it’s the removal of the luxury of spiritual ennui, or simply the visceral shock of immediate physical threat, Ottway finds himself fighting for his life.  Hell, perhaps he’s only fighting because he’s in a state of shock and instinct has momentarily taken over, until a time when he’ll remember that he doesn’t actually even want to live.  But for now, he’s the only one with both the survival skills and the emotional strength to be able to hold it together and lead the group, and he knows that he’s the other survivors’ only hope.

And as these movies go, the survivors always end up being an eclectic group of oddities and fuck-ups, with the more normal among them getting their chances to rise to heroics or descend to destructiveness.  Carnahan, as usual, has cast some fantastic actors in the roles.  Joe Anderson is a younger actor who has the charisma to be a huge Hollywood star.  You can see him as the lead in The River, a new series that premieres on ABC this week.  Here that leading man charisma is subverted and underplayed, not unlike Chris Pine’s role in Smokin’ Aces.  Dermot Mulroney has been one of the best supporting and often overlooked actors in Hollywood for years, and in The Grey he turns in a performance that ranks among his career highs, bringing a lot of heart and gravity to the core of the film.  But that’s true for all of the cast, particularly when working together in an ensemble obviously so collaborative and supportive of each other.  And Frank Grillo in particular, much less well-known than even Mulroney, has been a working actor for decades and certainly never had the kind of career visibility this part is giving him.  He really shines through in a pivotal role that counterpoints Ottway, and will undoubtedly get more high-profile work as a result.

I’ve seen reviews of the film from people who have critiqued some of the spiritual conversations and meanderings of the group.  But really, when you’re fighting the elements and death is all around you, aren’t you going to be questioning your own belief system?  Which isn’t to say that these are esoteric conversations; they’re much more along the lines of “I believe there’s a purpose for everything,” or “I wish I could believe in God, but I don’t.”  And ultimately, that’s what The Grey is really about: how prepared are you for your death?  And are you going to be able to face it head-on when the time comes?  It’s framed by the struggle of a man who wants to have a purpose to live, who desperately yearns for salvation and meaning, and is failing at it.  And it allies him with a group with a grab-bag of philosophies and spiritual beliefs, and it puts them in situations where they have to fight for their lives, and it lets us see how those belief systems change as they survive or die with them.

Carnahan does a fantastic job at capturing the harshness of the elements.  You get cold just watching the struggle for survival, for shelter, for warmth.  And not only does he excel at capturing the brutal, visceral, stark reality of the environment, but he also demonstrates a genuine sensitivity for those spiritually transcendent moments.  There’s a scene early on when Ottway has to talk a critically injured plane crash survivor through his death, through the realization and acceptance of it, and through the experience itself.  And Ottway’s resolve is tender, graceful, fully-aware, and completely unflinching.  He’s a man who has studied and accepted death fully, and as a result has the kind of deep relationship with it than can only be a strength when walking the razor’s edge where the panicked and unresolved can’t function and inevitably collapse.

If there’s a critique to be made of the movie, beyond that of the portrayal of the wolves, it has to do with the ending of the film.  It’s not really that the movie is vague, as has become far too common these days, particularly with younger directors.  A friend of mine compared this laziness at failing to finish the last act of a film with the building of a three-legged table.  Too often we’re seeing younger directors make open-ended films while telling themselves that their indecision is a strength of the narrative and a talking point for the film’s themes.  And while Carnahan’s last-minute fake-out isn’t so much a narrative cop-out, it does rob the audience of something that’s been promised from the beginning, even if, in a broader sense, the larger questions are answered quite thoroughly.  There’s a lot to be said for Ottway’s strengths and weaknesses as a survivor, and exactly how and where those things have led him, and in what ways he’s responsible for his own survival.  But there’s a certain aspect to the climax that Carnahan has been building towards, and whether or not he thinks he could have effectively filmed it without destroying the fabric of everything else he’s so successfully sewn together, he really owes it to the audience to try.  Considering that everything to that point was near-perfection, there’s nothing to suggest he couldn’t have pulled it off.


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