Before I tell you why Warrior is possibly my favorite film of the year thus far, let me make clear that, going in, I had no love for Ultimate Fighting and was as tired as anyone of cliched inspirational sports movies. In the case of the former, my limited experience with the sport has generally left me unnerved; for me, violence is something to be reserved for self-defense or protecting those in danger, and the brutality of MMA (mixed-martial arts) appears to exceed that of football, hockey, and even boxing. In the case of the latter, sports movies, like romantic comedies, seem to have long ago run out of ideas and now rely on tired formula. But regardless of the genre, great films always come down to great characters and stories, and it's these components that make Warrior appeal even to non-fans of the sport.
Warrior is, at its core, a story of a broken family and how the choices of years past continue to ripple through the lives of a father and two brothers. As the penitent father, Nick Nolte deserves an Oscar nomination: he's made serious mistakes that have estranged him from his two sons, and his desire to make things right in his later years is as inspiring as his previous actions were horrific. Nolte gives a truly heartbreaking performance as a man overwhelmed with guilt and a longing for reconciliation. Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) plays his role with a strong undercurrent of barely contained rage, a rage that is clearly born of deep pain and resentment. It's a terrific performance, and it's a testament to Hardy (and the screenplay) that no matter how unlikable he is, audiences find themselves rooting for him to find peace.
Joel Edgerton, formally known only as a young version of Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels, gives a breakout performance that is both tough and tender. He has the thankless job of playing the film's most cliche character: the big-hearted family man who returns to fighting as a last resort to provide for his wife and kids (see also: Rocky II, Cinderella Man). Graciously, Edgerton is given enough complexity in his relationships with father and brother to transcend stereotypes. Jennifer Morrison (House, Star Trek) plays the “worried but devoted wife” role, but again finds shades to her character that make her real and interesting.
The fight scenes in Warrior are brutal and drawn-out. Yet, though it's sometimes difficult to watch, the violence never feels gratuitous because every moment is loaded with emotional meaning. Motivations and hopes are always at the forefront, some of them complex, but all of them clear. Things that, on paper, seem unbelievable are credible onscreen because of the time taken to earn them. That said, I'm not sure how Edgerton's character could survive, much less stay conscious during, some of the beatings he takes, but then I'm no fighter. Warrior is a movie that made me want to be closer to my own family; it is a film where the bonds of parent to child, sibling to sibling, and husband and wife are shown to hold the key to life's greatest satisfactions, disappointments, hurts and healing.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Warrior is rated PG-13. It has a fair amount of foul language, including one use of the f-word. A man fights for money outside of a strip club, but we never go inside or see any dancers. A man and his wife have a conversation in their bathroom, he's shirtless and she's in a tank top and panties. There is plenty of violent mixed-martial arts tournament fighting. A character's Christian faith is shown to have played a key role in turning his life around; though another mocks him for this, he turns the other cheek.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Part of repentance may be enduring the bitterness of those whom one has hurt. Fighting for one's family is worthy combat. In order for peace to occur, one must let go of hate.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.