Thanks for returning to the weekly cage match we call The Myth of Macho. While we like it rough around here, that “rough” generally has a reason and that conflict usually has a cause. We’ve studied a lot of films pretty carefully by this point, taking them apart, seeing how they work on a variety of different levels. From our recent looks at vigilantism and critical discord in Death Wish and the hero’s journey in Backdraft, to what we had initially located in Lethal Weapon’s depiction of male depression we have discussed several pressing issues. But they all have the same thing in common: the depiction of men in cinema.
This week The Myth of Macho is delving into one of the most “macho” things around: MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). We’re all familiar with televised wrestling, seen ads for boxing PPVs, but where does MMA stand? A hybrid sport created from several kinds of wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing and other heavy combat sports, MMA became a contender in the early ‘90s with Royce Gracie’s Ultimate Fighting Championship Company. Gracie got UFC a sequence of PPV (Pay-Per-View) events that have since blossomed into a sweet cable television deal. What began as a series of matches to see how well singularly skilled sportsmen in the wrestling or boxing professions could do against the multi-skilled sportsmen in MMA soon became the hottest and most popular combat sport on television. While wrestling is still in it to win it and boxing matches will always grab tickets in Vegas and sell Pay-Per-Views, it’s MMA that has caught the attention of the mass male culture, with a high concentration in college-age and young adult men. About 25 years ago, this very same thing was happening in the wrestling community: the only difference was that, back then, it was called the WWF (now WWE).
This week we’re looking at a film that centers on the MMA and its interplay with one family and the construction of their masculine values. Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011) is a skillfully done film but it’s difficult to watch. It rips opens and exposes one of the bigger taboos in American culture: tough guys in severe emotional pain. While investigating issues of family, the male body, substance abuse and competition, the film also reveals the ways in which a hybrid sport like the MMA is the perfect battleground to show the issues of a dysfunctional male trinity like the Conlons. These three men, hard as hell, hardcore as hell, will not be able to make it without each other any more than this sport, built from other sports, would be the same if one were to remove the jiu-jitsu, muay thai or boxing.
Warrior is the story of Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a former drunk and abusive father who has tried to make peace with the world and his children by getting sober and becoming that “good, church-going member of society.” It is the story of Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), Paddy’s youngest, who left Pittsburgh with his mother to escape the toxic reach of his father. Returning home after serving in the Marines, he cannot forgive Paddy in any capacity, especially regarding his mother’s tragic death, and the only thing Tommy wants is training assistance in for a bigtime MMA competition. “That much you were good for,” he tells his father. Finally, Warrior is the story of Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), Tommy’s older brother, the kid who stuck around when Tommy left, because he was in love with a girl he ended up marrying. They had kids, he became a physics teacher after he closed out his MMA career, and is now about to see his house get foreclosed on due to inadequate funds, so he moonlights in parking lot MMA matches on the side. However, it’s still not enough to make ends meet. Like Tommy, Brendan shut Paddy out of his life entirely. However, unlike Tommy, Brendan never stopped wanting to pursue his relationship with his brother. Their estrangement was entirely of Tommy’s doing.
So what do Tommy and Brendan have in common aside from their exceptionally dysfunctional early childhood and long stint of being incommunicado? Quite simply, the two men are excellent fighters, trained as children by the one man who betrayed them both: their father. Tommy and Brendan make the decision, separately and quite unbeknownst to each other, to enter “Sparta,” a highly aggressive and competitive worldwide MMA tournament. And yes, they end up facing each other. That’s not really a shocker, is it? To a family that has spent eternity running away from each other, a face-to-face interaction can be hell. On the other hand, to an MMA family, a face-to-face and body-to-body interaction may be the only possible way in which these brothers are able to face themselves as well as each other, coming out on the other side as men.
In Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg, Greta Gerwig’s character Florence tells the main character, “Hurt people hurt people.” While that is a substantially different film than Warrior, the statement rings true. The hardest thing about experiencing O’Connor’s film is watching three grown men alternately hurt and be hurt by one another. While we were never privy to Tommy and Brendan’s childhood, we have to assume that, as far as childhood trauma goes, it followed the Newtonian Law that Brendan Conlon was teaching his physics class towards the beginning of the film: force = mass times acceleration. The amount of psychic damage that was done to Paddy’s sons was directly proportional to the amount he generated. Sure, Tommy and Brendan got swell athletic training as kids, but alongside that, they got the “force” of Paddy’s high-octane alcoholism and abuse that resulted in the kind of hurt and scarring that we see in the Conlons as adults.
Just like a MMA match, the characters in Warrior are out to damage each other until someone taps out. The problem is, this triumvirate are all essentially champion-level fighters. When Tommy and Brendan finally encounter each other one night on the beach at the Atlantic City-based Sparta tournament, it is all Brendan can do to fend off the emotional kicks and punches that Tommy throws at him… and he throws fast and hard. As the camera sweeps over the muscle bound brothers, Brendan reaches out to Tommy and tries to prove that he didn’t abandon his little brother on purpose, that the woman he stayed in Pittsburgh for was more than just “a girl.”
He opens up his wallet, points out his family and even goes so far as to identify his daughters as Tommy’s nieces. Tommy looks, looks up at Brendan, then says simply, “I don’t know ‘em […] so why am I looking at pictures of people I don’t know?” *POW* Punch to the side. The attack has begun. Brendan is taken aback. He tells Tommy that it’s because it’s his family. Tommy simply stares at Brendan. “And who are you, exactly?” he asks. *BAM* Tommy got him straight in the gut. Hard. Brendan’s face registers how unprepared he was for this much naked aggression and anger. “I’m your brother, man,” he says, incredulous. Tommy’s face creases. He looks directly at his older brother. “Were you in the Corps?” Brendan responds with confusion. Tommy speaks again, setting Brendan up for another huge takedown. “I said, I didn’t know you were in the Corps,” Brendan says he wasn’t. Tommy goes in for the kill. “Then you’re no brother to me. My brother was in the Corps.”
Tommy walks away. Brendan yells after him, and then realizes the only way to accomplish anything is to try to beat him at his own game. Brendan throws a verbal kick towards Tommy and it hits its emotional target. With a vengeance. Brendan attacked him in the one place he knew it would hurt: their mother. At this point, Tommy becomes vulnerable for one brief moment, revealing to Brendan his feelings, telling him “You were s’posed to stick to the plan. Mom needed you. I needed you. You’re my big brother and you bailed on me.”
This revelation demonstrates the broken and hurting little boy that Tommy still is. His identity as an adult man was initially stunted by Paddy Conlon’s addiction and abuse and secondarily by what he felt was intentional abandonment by his brother. The most important male figures in Tommy’s life let him down. While Tommy may look like a “Big Strong Man” on the outside and his military career may have labeled him as a “Manly Man” to many, Tommy Conlon is a wounded child in an adult male’s body.
Mixed Martial Arts serves as the film’s basic template. It becomes clear that Warrior is working towards a theme of hybridity and combination even by looking at some of the initial posters and promotional materials that were released. The visual was stunning: half of Tom Hardy’s face and half of Joel Edgarton’s face, perfectly lined up, against a black background with the word “Warrior” splashed across the fused image, bringing the halves together under one title, as one face. In a certain sense, this is precisely what the film was trying to do with the depiction of the three different Conlon men and their entanglement with each other and the MMA world.
The MMA structure is built around combat sports ranging from kickboxing to good old-fashioned wrasslin’. If you watch a MMA match, you are just as likely to see someone get clothes-lined as you are to see someone get punched, kicked or tackled. In this sense, it may seem to be a more anarchic form of competition (not to mention vicious) than other, more “civil” combat-related sports events like a boxing match. Casting characters as diverse and rich as Tommy, Brendan and Paddy Conlon only emphasizes the variety of the MMA structure, as they are all integral parts to the story just as much as boxing, martial arts or wrestling are part of MMA itself. Each man brings something individual and different to the ring, and has his own separate masculine experience that helps to create the film in its totality.
Brendan Conlon’s role is a domestic one. His strong family ties inform every decision he makes, as he later tells Tommy on the beach. Unlike his father, he has secured a healthy life for his family and has based his masculine identity upon that. The one thing that he does not have is financial security and, when offered bankruptcy by the bank officer, he denies it outright. “That’s not the way we do things,” he says. This, of course, sets in motion the string of events leading to his appearance at Sparta and his ultimate match against his brother. Brendan has a Brazilian jiu-jitsu-like approach, grappling with each thing thrown his way and throwing it to the ground until it surrenders.
As mentioned earlier, Tommy Conlon brings the hurt little boy to the engagement. His emotional structure is assembled much like that of the Muay Thai elements of MMA: quick powerful strikes. He lashes out at his father, his brother, and other fighters. Incidentally, watching Tommy fight, this is also represented in the way he takes a man down: quick, brutal, and hard. Tommy fights the way he feels, raging, burning, hungry to hurt others as hard and deeply as he is hurt. The anger and resentment borne out of being abandoned (or so he thought) and abused led him to seek alternative masculine identification in the Marines, but that search ultimately failed him as well. Moving forward to the Sparta tournament seemed the only way to do anything worthwhile, as he could make a difference in his dead military buddy’s family’s life with the winnings.
Paddy Conlon’s no fool. He knows he’ll never get father-of-the-year. Now confronted with his grown sons, however, he’s like the old-school combat sports of boxing and wrestling- he wants one last shot at being useful in their lives as they move forward. Paddy’s helpless and somewhat pathetic pleas to his sons for forgiveness fall flat: the ones to Brendan are denied due to the fact that he doesn’t believe him, intimating that there was an alcohol-related incident in the recent past that has caused this distrust. And trying to work with Tommy… well, that works about as well as trying to be pals with a rattlesnake. It is only after Paddy and Tommy have a final confrontation at Sparta that Paddy breaks and Tommy comes to his aid, seeing his father crumbling (repeating in his drunken fugue, “We’re lost, we’re lost,”). As Tommy cradles his father, he realizes that by exacting the same pain upon his father, he was only continuing the cycle that had been visited upon him, one that no one ever wins.
Warrior is the tale of a trinity: father, older son and younger son, all in different stages of their development as men. All fighters, all wounded, all deeply attached to each other, all deeply hurt by each other. The film explores strong domestic masculinity, addictive masculinity and the identity of a man-child, confused and broken, loyal to a fault but only to those who do not betray him (including the military). The family ties of these men will never be broken anymore than you can separate each element from a sport like MMA, a sport based upon the consistent use of them all. The positive feature of the Conlon story is that it allows us to talk about this stuff with more ease. Alcoholism, abuse, estranged siblings, betrayal, anger, pain, these things happen. Men are built to be tough and strong, but even the dudes in the MMA got conflict.
Hope you enjoyed another round of The Myth of Macho! See you next time! And remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!
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