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Quintessence (n., kwin-TESS-ents)

The purest, most concentrated example or form of something.

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III. The redemption of fallen Warriors

I watched Warrior a couple weeks ago with some friends. We watched it at the home of my friends’ friend, a late-career laborer with terrific taste in rye and a propensity for asking questions about a movie as it was unfolding. We snacked on pub mix and relaxed on leather couches or recliners. The other guys’ cigar smoke caused me to hang the shirt and pants on the second-floor railing when I returned home so they wouldn’t fumigate the rest of my laundry or nearby clothes.

Watching Warrior in that context helped me put it into its proper context: the examination of masculinity. Warrior is a deeply, almost exclusively masculine movie, made as MMA fighting was becoming more accepted but before the toxic masculinity movement, Jordan Peterson phenomenon, Joe Rogen, and the like made the issues unavoidable. This focus that makes the film so powerful and dissectible almost a decade later. It also made it hard to find its footing at the box office. It is a film for half the population only. But Warrior has interesting, valuable things to say about that half, things that are worth considering no matter if you’re a male or not.

Warrior is a film about men and how they build and break the things in their life. Paddy Conlon had two sons, Brendan and Tommy, but he is estranged from both of them. The film opens when Tommy shows up unexpectedly, wanting to be trained. Tommy is a broken man with barely controlled anger. It is a business arrangement to him. He wants no part of the relationship again.

“Warrior” refers to each character. Brendan is fighting for his family, for his home, and his livelihood. Paddy is fighting his own impulses, his history, and the effects of his actions on his sons. Tommy fights everyone, but he fights to earn love. The MMA athletes fight for respect and the prize. Tess fights quietly but fiercely for her vision of a family.

The two brothers fighting styles reflect their personalities. Tommy, more talented and full of fury, wins his matches by knockout within seconds. Brendan wins each match by submission (the other fighter yielding) in later rounds, often enduring brutal beatings to do so. During most matches, his coach admonishes him to get out of bad situations and to stay calm when he has a rare angle. The fights mirror the fighters’ personal history, too: Tommy does heroic feats and then exits a situation while Brendan endures the pain because he feels trapped between what he wants and what others need him to be.

The two brothers offer up competing, compelling versions of masculinity. Tommy dominates people and his environment. He is a warrior in the traditional sense. The military was a natural path for him. Brendan doesn’t follow the archetype of a warrior but of a king. He understands the complexities of ruling well and makes difficult, sacrificial decisions with an eye on a greater good. He is a teacher, ruling a class with wisdom and knowledge, not sheer force of will. His strength is deeper; Tommy’s is stronger. Brendan is the one you take home to meet the parents; Tommy is the one you’re drawn to in a bar. This, though, is the uncomfortable point: Tommy is magnetic, and it’s not just because Tom Hardy is so good at these characters. There is something palpable about Tommy’s ability to subdue any threat that we respect. There’s a reason Tommy’s Marines respect him. The point of MMA isn’t to take the brutal blows, it’s to dish them out. The winner—the best man—is the one who does this, and there’s none better than Tommy Conlon. Brendan is the one you want to be around, but Tommy’s the one you want to be.

Warrior hints at how domestic duties can soften men, too. While our introduction to Tommy involves him asserting verbal dominance over his father, our introduction to Brendan involves him having his face painted by his two daughters during a birthday party at his home. He gives a hostage look to the camera his wife is recording the party with, a clear plea for escape. Brendan used to fight, as he tells the school principal later. He traded that life for a respectable one as a teacher, husband, and father—and got soft. During his first fight, Brendan looks a bit flabby. His timing is off, too; he takes a shot in the first fight that he probably should’ve avoided. The resulting black eye concerns the school, who suspends him without pay. To this point, Brendan is a caged man, domesticated in all major ways. He is quietly but clearly less than happy. It is only through action and fighting that he finds his role, place, and respect again. It is also only through action and fighting that he regains his own family of birth, not just the family he has created with his wife Tess.

Family, of course, is the other major theme of Warrior. Brendan’s family is the reason he fights; it gives him strength and is also what others use to motivate or leverage him. Tommy’s family also drives how he fights, but it is only through rage over his family’s brokenness. After his mother passed away and left him with no connections, he replaced his family with the Marines. When he and Brendan first reconnect, he bluntly tells Brendan that his brothers are Marines, not Brendan. We’ve written before about how Marvel movies replaced the nuclear family with work; the military has a similar effect. Both things provide men with a place and cause to belong to alongside others, something to protect, a chance to learn and build on a legacy of values, and something to commit to. Tommy is very much a prodigal son, but he is clear-eyed enough to know what his family is. He’s also not entirely wrong in his condemnation of Brendan and Paddy. He bore the effects of his father’s drunken lack of love and his brother’s duplicitous pledges, becoming a man abruptly in the worst way possible. (More spoilers) It is hard to say exactly where things are between the brothers as the film ends, but I’ve never thought the ending was as hopeful as many seem to think. The family is and will always be shattered. Paddy realizes that his time with them is done—he can’t trust himself and neither can they trust him, and he’s not with the two brothers at the end. Paddy’s done damage to both. Each brother bears his marks—Tommy has his domination, abusiveness, and substance issues; Brendan has the stubbornness and manipulation—and neither want anything to do with him. Tommy doesn’t even want to forgive him. The Conlon family is over. If it continues, it will be in future generations. (It’s worth noting here that Brendan’s two children are both daughters; the family name will end here if nothing changes.)

But, as a film about males, Warrior isn’t as concerned with families as it is with the men who drift through them. Is it any surprise that the words that a drunken Paddy bellows at Tommy are “You bastards! Stop this ship! Ahab, you godless sonofabitch, stop this ship!” Everything is contained there. The tyrannical sea captain, consumed with a self-defeating quest. The lack of mooring from church or normal family relations. The crude perception of a woman’s role. The difference in status between brothers. The anger over foolish leaders who endanger others. It is one of the most awful, powerful scenes I’ve watched on film. It is powerful not just because of Nick Nolte’s performance (more on him in a moment) but also because it’s when Tommy’s redemption begins. At the beginning of the scene, Paddy is the focus. The bottles on the floor tell us what’s happened, and he is the focus of the shots as he invades the space and yells. Then the camera reverses, putting the focus on Tommy. It is a mirrored shot: Tommy is looking at himself. Of course, Tommy doesn’t see this. He sees his dad and is angry at him for his relapse. But as Paddy wanders away from the camera (and the camera backs away from Tommy), Tommy softens, realizing the situation. He moves towards the camera, understanding more of what’s happened and how he drove his father into the relapse. The scene ends with Tommy hugging his father and being with him as he begins to fall asleep. “We’re lost. We’ll never make it back,” slurs Paddy. He is more right than he knows. But Tommy has begun to find his way back to healthiness.

Ultimately, as a story of redemption, Warrior is Brendan’s story. But each Conlon gets a taste of redemption. The steps are halting and there is hurt that cannot be undone, but there is redemption. Paddy gets to see his sons win at the highest level due to his influence. Tommy is a hero and starts to regain his connection to family and society. Brendan regains his place in the world and respect, and he also begins to be the support his younger brother needed instead of rationalizing his own actions. But perhaps the best redemption of Warrior is Nick Nolte. Although the part was written for him, Nolte’s previous substance abuse issues made the studio reluctant to cast him. He rewarded their trust with an Oscar-nominated performance full of past history and gravitas. It’s hard to think of a more perfect casting in a film about men facing and fighting their demons.

I do not think that all males need to be uniquely redeemed, not even in 2019. The whole world needs redemption. Until all things are made new, there will be a battle to remake it, piece by piece. Warrior knows this. It shows us how men work towards this, how the world works better with good men in it, and how the stories of redemption give us hope. To be a male is to be willing to take action and wise about doing it. Warrior shows us three men trying to do that. Yes, and amen. Maranatha.

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