29th 12 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Fear and Desire (1953) / Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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By Roderick Heath

With the mystique sustained by Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for despotic precision and lofty solitude as a mature film artist, it’s at once amusing and fascinating to imagine him as a messily inventive ingénue with the usual roll call of geeky obsessions and filmic touchstones. Kubrick evolved from a camera-happy Bronx teen into a legendarily exacting visionary, and produced one of the most determinedly individualistic oeuvres in mainstream cinematic history, even as Kubrick attempted to hide from posterity the fruits of his apprentice days. Critic Pauline Kael backed him up in this, once commenting that his career began properly with The Killing (1956) and that, like a developed novelist, he ought to have been able to buy up and destroy his first two works. Kubrick almost managed this: thanks to the bankruptcy of its distributor, he was able to hide his first feature, Fear and Desire, for decades, and it has only recently reemerged from the realm of shadowy enigma known only to a handful of scholars and viewers with long memories. His follow-up, Killer’s Kiss, was never effectively impounded. Kubrick, a middling student with literary tastes, found a prodigious success as a photographer in the late ’40s, whilst still in his teens, first as a freelancer and then as a staff member of Look magazine. He married his high school flame Toba Metz, moved to Greenwich Village, and began to teach himself techniques of film production, a hobby that soon turned into an ambition. Kubrick made a handful of short documentaries and a brief foray into TV work before he finally set out to make his first feature-length film at the ripe old age of 25.

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The circumstances were hardly auspicious. Kubrick scraped together a budget of about $10,000 for the shoot, mostly thanks to his chemist uncle and his father’s cashed-in life insurance policy. The screenplay was written by another of Kubrick’s high school friends, the budding playwright Howard Sackler, who would later find repute with his 1968 work The Great White Hope. Kubrick had five actors, five crew members (including Toba), and a team of Mexican agricultural workers to lug around the film equipment. Shooting took place in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and the cast and crew were poisoned at one point by residual insecticide in a crop sprayer being used to create fog. Like most beginner works from notable filmmakers, there are obvious and powerful anticipations of Kubrick’s recurring interests, attitudes, and images. As movies unto themselves, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are near-equal mixtures of successful and unsuccessful elements, but for intriguingly distinct reasons that plainly reveal the young Kubrick trying to balance out the key aspects not only of his aesthetic repertoire, but also his personal intuition, perspective, and intellectual refrains.

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Fear and Desire is beset by the limited cinematic scope on offer, with its handful of actors, props, and settings. Kubrick leans heavily on Sackler’s script and the actors to imbue the project with a conceptual scale far larger than the production elements would allow. The film’s literary affectations, replete with broadly obvious metaphors and archly meditative dialogue, often suggest exactly what this project is: a bunch of young bohemian neophytes trying to make a high falutin’ statement about “the nature of war” in such a way that places them on a far “higher” plane than the grunt work of mere genre filmmaking. At times, Fear and Desire recalls Coleman Francis’ Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) for wedding cheapjack warfare to muddy existentialist posturing. Yet Fear and Desire, even at its most awkward and affected, bears the imprint of real artists, if ones still learning the meaning of art and the specifics of their own talents. Sackler’s dialogue occasionally possesses the music of poetry with hints of the influence of Eugene O’Neill, and Kubrick’s direction is consistently confident and fluent, especially considering the limitations upon him, and occasionally remarkable. Fear and Desire depicts a war without a defined setting, era, or antagonists. It’s conflict boiled down to essentials, a primal saga of lost and maddened individuals seeking personal meaning even in the midst of impersonal and indiscriminate killing, going up against men no different to themselves, emphasised by the fact that Kubrick makes them literal doppelgängers, the actors playing their opposite numbers.

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A similar dynamic and mood to Kubrick’s later war films is clearly present in a blunt and embryonic form, as the struggle seems to stumble far beyond its nominal boundaries and the protagonists attempt to keep their heads and their souls together deep in enemy territory, for example, the beset patrols of Path of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the bomber pilots of Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The landscape they fight through is an eerie, atavistic zone of dispute, with a forest out of the Grimm Brothers and a sludgy river that calls to mind Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Four soldiers are stranded here after their plane crashes: the educated, slightly supercilious Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), who reflects sardonically on their situation even as he tries to think of a way out of it; the likeable, poetic, but mentally fraying Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky); the stolid Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit); and the yearning, working-class philosopher Sgt. “Mac” Mackenzie (Frank Silvera). Stranded several miles from the front line, the quartet decide, after some argument and digression, to build a raft and float down the river to their own lines. They encounter an obviously domesticated dog, which they fear might be a tracker’s animal, but it instead runs off in confusion. As they bundle together logs into a makeshift vessel, a low-flying aircraft shoots over them, and the soldiers are worried that it saw them, but it proves to have landed in a field close to a hut where an enemy general seems to be residing. Desperate for food and weapons, the soldiers stage an assault on an outpost, successfully sneaking up on and killing two enemy combatants dining within, and then killing two more when they arrive.

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This sequence is where a future great director seems most clearly emergent, with a burst of technique, rapid montage, which Kubrick offered only sparingly later in his career. He depicts the ambush of the two enemy soldiers, caught eating their dinner, as a frenetic explosion of physical and cinematic brutality, his edits carving them up into furiously squirming limbs, savage and desperate mouths, and spilt food mashed and clawed by desperate fingers into a whirl of corporeal mush. Kubrick entwines sustenance and death into the most basic of the essential parallels that will extend throughout his career, the closeness of primal experience to the surface of the human condition no matter how becalmed and effete its self-erected circumstances. The victorious raiders settle down to claim the weapons of the men they’ve killed and eat their food, with Mac slobbering down stew with wolfish glee, celebrating his victory—his proclaimed right to live another day and beat his competitors—with the most direct of statements and the least evolved animal enthusiasm. The anticipations here are redolent of the Neanderthal discoveries of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The script archly contrasts plebeian vulgarity, embodied by Mac, with the educated Corby’s quietly insufferable pontifications, as when he watches Mac and comments he’s found the perfect metaphor for war, “cold stew on a blazing island…with a tempest of gunfire around it to fan the flames,” and surveys the dead soldiers sprawled in the blank-eyed shock of sudden death and notes, as if sarcastically rebutting the title-expressed thesis of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, “No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago—before the Ice Age—the glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands.”

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The enemy general, also played by Harp, shares with his fellow officer this tendency towards overt philosophising, in a darker, even weightier fashion, reclining with distinctly aristocratic poise as he reflects on his status as a destroyer and sacrificer of men with pain and misgiving. The schematic split of the characters remains ponderously obvious even as Kubrick’s cinematic wit and actors try to shake them into independent life. But it’s clear that Kubrick would reiterate the schisms he describes here, in increasingly sophisticated terms, to become statements enacted on macrocosmic and cultural levels in his later works, and most immediately in Paths of Glory and Spartacus (1960), where culturally elevated and educated figures parade their civility as justifications for oppressing others dismissed as subhuman. Mac, for his part, makes a play for existential victory: in recognising his essential inconsequentiality and probable fate after the war is finished to return to a life of effaced labour, he determines to destroy the enemy general, even if it means dying in the process, simply to prove his existence has meaning and effect on the larger scheme of things. To this end, he talks Corby into approving his simple but effective plan to row downstream on the raft and distract the general’s guards, giving Corby and the others time to strike at the general himself. Mac’s voyage down to the river is a thrilling moment sporting the most successful of the film’s attempts at presenting interior monologue, as Mac meditates on his motivations, at once pathetic and transcendent, shot from a low angle by Kubrick with dark sky and looming trees sliding by above and giving mystical force to Mac’s self-constructed destiny.

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The film’s second great scene arrives as the team are forced to take a local peasant girl prisoner. The girl has been washing clothes in the river with some other women and comes across the soldiers hiding in the bushes,cueing an electrifying moment when the girl spots the eyes watching her from the behind the leaves and as her own eyes widen in alarm, the men suddenly erupt to grasp her. As even Corby’s interest in their captive seems a touch too intense for a moment, it’s Mac who drawls, half-sarcastically, “Let’s try to remain civilised.” Worried that this girl might have seen their raft, still sitting on the riverbank half-finished, the men tie her to a tree. Corby leaves Sidney to watch over her, but this proves to be a mistake. Sidney’s fermenting trauma from the killings in the hut begins to boil over, and the silent, uncomprehending girl becomes a blank slate for Sidney to write his insecurities and caprices upon, trying to entertain her with a grotesque dumb show in which he pretends to be a general dining, in between molesting her with a pathetic, dissociated neediness. When he unties her because she seems responsive, she runs off, and Sidney shoots her in the back. Sidney spirals into complete madness, randomly quoting The Tempest before dashing off into the woods. Kubrick’s career strand of vividly visualised, fetishistic, erotic textures is insistently nascent here, as he zeroes in on Sidney’s and the girl’s legs as he embraces her when still tied to the tree, his fatigues and combat boots and her bare legs in a sickly dance. Mazursky, who would become a noted director in his own right, offers a performance that anticipates Kubrick’s contradictory fondness for blackly comedic, violently expressive, almost cartoonish performances that would punctuate—and puncture—the veneers of studious realism in his movies. Among such performances are Timothy Carey and Peter Sellers’ turns for him, Malcolm MacDowell’s Alex DeLarge, and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.

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Mac’s plan proves fairly successful, but he is seriously wounded by fire from the riverbank. He drifts downstream, where Sidney, still deep in delirium, gets on board, and the two pieces of human wreckage float toward their lines. Corby and Fletcher succeed in assassinating the general and his aide-de-camp, with the inevitable irony that they are killing their own doppelgängers: the wounded general drags himself across the floor and out the door and manages to croak, “I surrender!” just before Corby kills him. Corby and Fletcher manage to flee in the general’s plane, making it back to their own base and then trudging back to the riverside to await Mac and Sidney as they drift through the enveloping fog. Kubrick returns to the opening shot of the forested landscape just as the pair on the raft float in toward the pair ashore, with Sidney plainly mad and Mac possibly dead. The haunting, numinous visuals filled with wallowing haze, and the awkward attempts by Corby to find words to rationalise their experience, all look forward to the coda of Full Metal Jacket.

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Despite the film’s main fault, an inability to discern and sustain its best instincts, it is, in spite of Kubrick’s later dismissal of it as an amateurish work, actually marked out by a general avoidance of many pitfalls of such low-budget cinema. Kubrick’s blocking of his actors is usually strong, and sometimes he achieves some artful compositions. Kubrick is plainly fascinated by the spectacle and meaning of death, repeatedly presenting moments of demise as first a pounding wallop of mortality and then a sudden emptiness. He constantly returns to study the faces of the dead—the girl’s, the enemy soldiers, the general’s—to contemplate their shocked, staring emptiness, to ram home a sense of curtailed existence, the humanity suddenly gone from these puppets whose strings have been cut.

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The initial cost of Fear and Desire was blown out considerably by post-production work, and despite impressing some notable culturati like James Agee and Mark Van Doren, it failed financially. Kubrick hurriedly signed on to make another short documentary for the Seafarers International Union to raise money for his next attempt, but he again needed added help from family and friends to fund Killer’s Kiss. Again, it was almost a one-man production for the erstwhile auteur, but this time, Kubrick firmly made his mark on the people who saw the result. Killer’s Kiss sees Kubrick seemingly more at home in the precincts of Manhattan he had spent his teenaged years haunting as a photographer, to the point where the film often feels less like a narrative movie than a photographic record and portfolio showing off the manifold attractions, both glitzy and seamy, of the cityscape. Certainly, immersing himself in this world allowed Kubrick to fill his film up with cinema verite inserts, and celebrate his native city with a zesty immediacy and authenticity that contrasts the studiously crafted, perfectly controlled facsimiles he came to prefer working in. Killer’s Kiss is an apt follow-up to Fear and Desire in some ways, similarly taking up a hoary situation and endeavouring to essay it with a stripped-down focus on psychological turmoil and experiential intensity. But where the debut film was literary in tone, Killer’s Kiss presents raw cinematic values tethered to a thin story pretext, one that shows Kubrick had been busy consuming movies, particularly recent noir films, as well as a panoply of Expressionist and Soviet filmmakers, and the dean of young America filmic geniuses, Orson Welles.

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Kubrick’s subsequent move to always provide himself with a solid literary base for his films explained by the fact that his script for Killer’s Kiss is only sufficient. Sensitive palooka Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) and degraded princess Gloria Price (Irene Kane) never quite feel real as characters, and the story is exceedingly simple. Nonetheless, Killer’s Kiss provides constant hints as to the diastolic nature of Kubrick’s eventual oeuvre. If Fear and Desire anticipates the hemisphere of Kubrick’s work preoccupied by human devolution, violence, and corrosive destruction, most usually apparent in his war films, but often emerging in others, Killer’s Kiss follows on from Sgt. Mac’s existential mission. It presents a hero who is beset by trials on an almost cosmic scale, and the questing protagonist, sometimes heroic, sometime not, but always driven in Kubrick’s films, comes fully to life here in its basic St. George and the Dragon tale of burnt-out boxer Davey who falls for his neighbour Gloria, but has to win her from mid-level gangster Vincent Rapallo (Silvera).

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Gloria works in that common euphemistic profession of dance hostess in the club Rapallo runs. Kubrick stages his opening sequence as a study in urban alienation with underpinnings of mysterious connection, as Davey prepares for his evening’s bout and Gloria for a night’s work in their flats with facing windows over a narrow alley. Kubrick makes an oddball visual pun as he peers at Davey through the distorting glass of his fishbowl, likening it to the fishbowl proximity of the two apartments and lives whilst suggesting the perversion of natural community such city living sustains. He follows them as they leave their flats and emerge from the building simultaneously. Welles’ influence is immediately in evidence here in the deep focus and use of distortion effects, but the overall design of the sequence, tracing the two characters in their separate paths to events that will see them both put their bodies on the line for other people’s benefit, evokes more the Russian and German directors Kubrick went to school on: whereas Fear and Desire is replete with Soviet Realist close-ups and edits, here Eisenstein is present in the use of dialectic montage, and the holistic analysis of Dziga Vertov looms, too.

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Kubrick dynamically intercuts to continue the sense of synchronicity conjoining the man and woman as Kubrick intercuts Davey having his hands the taped for the fight with Gloria dolling herself up in a dressing room at Rapallo’s club. The synchronicity continues as Rapallo mauls Gloria on the aphrodisiac high of watching Davey on television, as he is pummelled and finally knocked down in a fight scene. Their bout is depicted in a seemingly endless, nightmarish series of shots from below at the very edge of the ring, the fighters looming and reeling with sweat-sodden skin and forming near-abstract patterns of force, whilst Rapallo gathers up Gloria, fingering her back with consuming purpose like a spider crawling on a flower. After his fight, Davey goes home and suffers through a nightmare in which he’s flying along empty city streets rendered in a hallucinatory negative image, anticipatory of no lesser moment than the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Davey is spiritual antecedent to the peculiar avatars of the human condition who bob up again and again in Kubrick’s films, as a hero who is beset and outmatched by great systems of power, but ennobled by his contradictory mix of civility and brutality to become almost mythic in scale. Whereas this figure became increasingly more ambiguous in Kubrick’s work, Davey’s eventual outright battle with Rapallo over Gloria is simple in the extreme, almost on the level of the scuffle of the apes over the water hole in 2001, a contest for breeding rights.

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Davey is awakened from his nightmare by the sounds of Gloria screaming, and he looks through the window to see Rapallo assaulting her. Rapallo flees, and Davey solicitously puts Gloria to bed and watches over her. Gloria explains how and why Rapallo came to be in her apartment, and recounts her tragic life story. She came from a fairly well-off family that sadly disintegrated with her father’s death. Her dancing prodigy sister, who had given up dancing to marry a rich man to help ease the family’s debts, committed suicide, an act for which the young Gloria blamed herself. The insertion of this odd, dreamlike sequence sees Kubrick straining to avoid lapsing into mere conversational filmmaking with sophomoric technique, and coupled with the uncertainty of the writing adds to the patchiness of the film’s total effect. But again, it’s an anticipation of Kubrick’s more concerted, applied games with chronology in The Killing, whilst the contrast of the brutal emotions Gloria describes with the artistry of the dancing on screen predicts Kubrick’s obsessive fascination with immediate contrasts of human civilisation and fragility.

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Having at last breached the divide between them, Davey invites Gloria to accompany him as he quits New York and boxing for his family’s ranch near Seattle, and Gloria accepts. When they head to Times Square so Gloria can end it with Rapallo, Davey asks for his manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett) to come and pay him off there. Rapallo’s goons (Mike Dana and Felice Orlandi) mistake Albert for Davey and kill him, and they snatch Gloria away. Following Gloria’s disappearance, Davey goes back to his apartment, only to have to skip out ahead of some policemen who think that he killed Albert. Davey, realising what’s happened, follows Rapallo to a warehouse district, where his goons are keeping Gloria captive, and almost successfully bails them up long enough to get her away; but, of course, no dragon ever gives up a princess easily.

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Whereas Fear and Desire saw Kubrick denaturalising his embryonic art by venturing deep in alien territory, Killer’s Kiss sings Kubrick’s familiarity with the environs he’s depicting. The story is plainly an assemblage of elements Kubrick obviously enjoyed in several contemporary noir films, including 99 River Street (1953) and Body and Soul (1947), and Kubrick presents some excellent noir-infused shots and sequences. But Killer’s Kiss still often feels less a genre pastiche than a rough draft for the New York indie film scene, which would explode within a decade, with aspects of cinema verite realism and improvisatory zeal: Cassavettes, Scorsese, Lumet and De Palma are lurking in its genome. Whereas in Fear and Desire there was nothing to point his camera at but the faces of his actors, this movie is often at its most engaging when simply, metaphorically glancing over its shoulder at street scenes and enjoying New York as more than a glorified set, a microcosm where romantic glamour and grit sit cheek by jowl, and the city’s protean strangeness can upset the best laid plans, most fruitfully illustrated when two fez-wearing bohemians at play in Times Square prove a nuisance to Davey, precipitating the narrative’s swerve into melodrama. Whilst the contrast with the stylised, set-bound New York of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is self-evident, the same essential atmosphere is evident, of a world unto itself filled with places offering both romantic sanctuary and soul-distorting experience. Gloria’s pointed, almost brutal rejection of Rapallo as too old (“You smell!”) suggests Kubrick’s understanding of the mercilessness of youth, later crucial to Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, showing that already Kubrick’s sense of character ambiguity and the way biology often trumps civility was even-handed and encompassing.

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Kubrick’s visual patterning, so clearly developed in a work like The Shining, is nascent here, as he notes the painted ads for Rapallo’s dance hall with their lacquered, beaming fantasy girls, contrasting the realities of Gloria’s life. This seemingly casual but recurring piece of editorial illustration twins functionally with both Gloria’s ghostly sister dancing in hyper-feminine perfection whilst her sad end is recounted, and the climax, where Rapallo and Davey battle, quite literally, over their mutual object of desire in a space filled with idealised feminine forms— mannequins arrayed in endless variables on the essential human form, headless or handless, smashed as shields and cleaved into fragments in the ultimate dumb-show variation on the film’s obsession with the human body as battlefield. The scenes leading up to this final duel are dazzling in their way, indeed already quite masterly, apart from the awkward moment of Davey’s actual escape by jumping through a window, a stunt that’s poorly staged and a trifle unbelievable. Kubrick’s staging of Davey’s raid on Rapallo’s hideout, his near-defeat by the goons, and the subsequent chase through back alleys and across rooftops, the cityscape stretching around them like an alien landscape, emphasises raw physical force and experience again, with Rapallo leering over the captive Gloria with a punitive blend of erotic delight and fury, mocking her efforts to appease him, and the hero and villains equally composed of nerve, muscle, blunder and skill as they all contend with the danger of the chase. Here the hero and villain, with the villain clutching an axe exactly the same as the one with which Jack Torrance would menace his family in The Shining, are still cleanly demarcated, whereas by Kubrick’s later films, they would often coalesce into Janus-faced singular figures like Alex and Jack. The Welles influence becomes acute again in the mannequin warehouse fight, and possibly that of Michael Powell, too, for as the ballet sequence invokes The Red Shoes (1948), so this scene and aspects of the film in general recalls Powell’s Contraband (1940), where the kidnapping villains were undone in a warehouse full of plaster busts. The film’s final, cheering triumph for assailed lovers right on the cusp of apparent surrender to alienation again looks forward to Eyes Wide Shut.

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Kubrick’s collaboration with Silvera in these first two movies is worth noting. Silvera was an African-American actor who was able to get away with playing a wide variety of ethnic roles, and he inhabits the characters of Mac and Silvera with a seamless, professional capacity that the young Kubrick must have appreciated, especially when compared with the more awkward, theatrical performances around him. Silvera offers strikingly different characterisations that sustain a common thread of frustration in being stymied in a desire for the better, sweeter, grander experiences in life, and it’s hard not to empathise with Rapallo’s pungent offence when Gloria spurns him, even if he is a monster. It’s certainly the first of a string of memorable collaborations Kubrick would have with reliable star actors like Kirk Douglas and Sterling Hayden, and, more particularly, peculiar or chameleonic character actors like Peter Sellers, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Philip Stone. Kubrick benefited from the changing state of the American film world in the 1950s, as the rise of television and legal blows to the hegemony of the studio system were beginning to create new avenues into the industry as producers and stars looked further afield for talent. Within a year of wrapping Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick would achieve his first truly impressive balance of form and function in The Killing, and within seven years of handcrafting Fear and Desire, he was stepping in to rescue the multimillion production Spartacus. Young Stanley was going places.


30th 11 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Warrior (2011)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Gavin O’Connor

By Roderick Heath

Certain movies seem to ride the currents of the zeitgeist with a blend of fortuitous spiritual accord and opportunistic calculation. Gavin O’Connor, who, after making a mark with Tumbleweeds (1999), has constructed an oeuvre resting solidly on the power of clichéd words—Miracle! Pride! Glory! Warrior!—to communicate their essence instantly to even the most thickly unibrowed of viewers. With Warrior, he channels Great Recession and War on Terror-era angst and the spreading popularity of the haute-macho histrionics of Ultimate Fighting; as such, in 50 years’ time, when cinema and cultural historians want a window into the cultural mood of our time, they may reasonably deduce that the inchoate impulses and desperate straits of the early 2000s led us to beat the living shit out of our brothers rather than figure out who was more worth hitting.

Warrior is the sort of film that leaves me with a nearly physical sense of confusion in trying to reckon with its impact, which is perhaps giving it far more credit than it deserves. Warrior is at once so dizzyingly, gobsmackingly bad that it outrages the critical faculties, and yet it still works on a level of primal melodrama to an extent that it rouses the blood. In fact, I’m not sure if a better, more tasteful movie could summarise the peculiar insanities of our era better. It’s a film that’s not afraid to recycle every fight cliché under the sun or milk every drop of macho gravitas for the sake of trying to keep its presumed audience involved. Warrior could easily have been made in the 1930s and cast, oh, I dunno, James Cagney and Clark Gable as the goofus and gallant pair of tough brothers forced by various crises to battle each other in the ring, minus the bone-cracking detail and pseudo-realistic swathes of angst over histories of familial crack-up, spousal abuse, and posttraumatic stress fall-out.

Instead of Cagney and Gable, we have Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan Conlon, two brothers with an alcoholic, abusive father named Paddy (Nick Nolte) whose lives have taken disparate paths and yet lead back to the same place. Both were trained in the disciplines of wrestling and martial arts, but Tommy eventually fled the house as a teenager with his mother, whilst the older Brendan stayed at home: both now harbour powerful antipathy for their father, who, when the film opens, is newly, if fragilely, on the wagon. Paddy finds Tommy sitting on his doorstop after years away, sipping liquor from a bottle in a brown bag and overflowing with sullen aggression, repeatedly baiting his old man with lines about how he preferred him as a drunk whilst reminding him of the poverty and agony his ex-wife died in. Tommy nonetheless enlists his father to be his trainer: as a teen Tommy had once wanted to best the record of the storied ancient Greek fighter Theogenes.

On a visit to a local gym, Tommy volunteers as a sparring partner for Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple), a current champ, and promptly beats the hell out of him. This is captured by a bystander on his cell phone, and the footage becomes a You Tube sensation, eventually witnessed by a far-off soldier in Iraq who recognises Tommy as the man who saved his life by pulling him from a shattered tank on the battlefield. At the same time, Brendan, who has retired from the UFC after a near-fatal defeat, has become a high school physics teacher. With a wife, Tess, and children, Brendan has been left heavily in debt in after paying one of his daughters’ medical bills. Threatened with foreclosure, Brendan decides to return to fighting. After winning a bout in the parking lot of a strip joint, Brendan is suspended by his school. Thus he commits to a full return to the sport, talking his old trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) into helping him. The brothers’ fateful paths lead them both to enter Sparta, “the Superbowl of mixed martial arts,” held in Atlantic City.

It feels, as per sporting movie rules, a bit unfair to kick Warrior when it’s down at the box office, but it’s a work that has scored big with those who did see it and many critics, too, and seems destined for a long life on DVD and cable TV like another initially failed and yet seemingly immortal epic of masculine self-pity and triumphalism, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). If Warrior had been made in the ’50s, Marlon Brando would almost certainly have played Tommy, and Hardy, with a hulking physical strength accompanied by a mouth belonging to a Rossetti angel and violently expressive eyes, is definitely a movie star in the mould that produced Brando, Newman, and Dean. Also, if it had been a Brando film made by the cinema artisans of that era, they might have had the good sense to clear the decks of superfluous drama and distraction and work up some depth in portraying Tommy’s conflicted, near-neurotic rage and sadomasochistic impulses. Instead, Warrior tries to sustain two similar, yet distinctive protagonists, which allows the film to stretch out to an ungodly 140 minutes, climax with about a half-dozen fight scenes where two would do, and amass story elements and dramatic tropes as if O’Connor and his fellow screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman bought them up at a fire sale. Unlike David O. Russell’s likeable The Fighter (2009), which retained a seriocomic approach that leavened its well-worn tropes and at least some claim to authenticity, O’Connor’s film is as dourly, joylessly self-serious as any tattooed obsessive UFC heavy, and seems pitched to the types of people who will, when watching it, chime in every five minutes with statements like, “That’s right, yo, ‘cos it’s about respect, you know what I mean, bro?”

In spite of the ancient Greek references and the practically mythical theme of the two brothers doomed to clash in battle, Warrior has no pretensions to Greek tragic style, or, if it does, it hopelessly smothers them. Warrior is rather a Rocky variant where the brothers play Rocky and Apollo, and like those characters, seem to summarise a contemporary schism in the American mindset. The major difficulty O’Connor sets himself is setting up a situation where two characters who might rightfully expect to be the heroes of the piece duke it out. Tommy is a war hero and plans to donate whatever he can win fighting to the widow of his former brother in arms Pilar Fernandez (Vanessa Martinez). Brendan, a beleaguered underdog, is of course fighting to save his middle-class status. Their fighting styles are as polarised as their personalities: Tommy is a lethal pugilist who tries to bash all opponents into the ground immediately, whereas Brendan is a slippery wrestler who absorbs heavy blows before contorting his opponents into agonising knots they can’t escape. A sequel might reasonably see them taking on Godzilla and Mothra.

O’Connor, whose foolish enthusiasm and utter cynicism blend indecipherably, throws in everything but the kitchen sink for the sake of emotionally involving his audience. His dramatic style is much like Tommy’s fighting technique: he hits and keeps on hitting until resistance is shattered. I’d be lying if I said by the end I hadn’t been affected by the film on its most basic level—wanting to see how the film could satisfyingly resolve its thorny moral and emotional quandaries, and see our heroes beat their seemingly indomitable opponents. But afterwards I felt greasy and quite genuinely used: the film pushes buttons, which I’m sure many of us have these days, of latent rage at fiscal institutions and corrupted authority figures, of fears about how to keep roofs over heads in tough times, and anxieties over the psychological and social damage of the wars that have both defined and yet also remained oddly alien from the everyday landscape of our era. And yet Warrior squirms out of making any real investigations into the nature of these crises, because at the same time it attempts to exploit such issues, it also gives a moral and emotional hand job to a presumed audience of conservatives and young men aching for manly validation.

It’s heavily suggested that Paddy’s domestic violence was caused by PTSD after his own military service, and Tommy makes many of the same mistakes, acting with surly, unforgiving aggression towards both father and brother. Yet the film gets off on the sight of soldiers coming to serenade Tommy at his bouts with the Marine hymn. The film outlines the good cause Tommy and Brendan have to be angry with their father, and yet O’Connor spares no effort in wringing our empathy with the pathetic, shambolic old man, as when he’s rebuffed by Brendan outside his house like a poor, panting, lost dog as he tells his kids, who don’t know Paddy at all. Later, the film builds this up to a note that’s both ludicrous and yet kind of affecting when Paddy, exhausted by Tommy’s cruelty, falls off the wagon and screams lines from the talking book version of Moby Dick he’s been toting throughout the film in Tommy’s face, stirring something like filial pity from Tommy at last. O’Connor wants to depict catharsis here, but he fails to gain it precisely because he’s copped out of any actual reckoning with the emotional damage both men have suffered and inflicted. The lack of any essential irony or even genuine consequentiality to this background detail finally hurries up a process I’ve noticed in other recent films, like Jim Sheridan’s dreadful Brothers (2009), of turning the familial and spousal abuse of PTSD-afflicted soldiers into an equivalent of a battle scar—ugly, but part of the job of the good loyal God-fearin’ mom-and-apple-pie-lovin’ soldier.

O’Connor and Co. set up a fascinating set of standards that determine the outcome of the film, leavening Tommy’s lustre of patriotism and military heroism by making him a deserter (that’s bad), but one who deserted because he was angry at the friendly fire incident that killed his buddy (that’s good), who doesn’t care who he hurts on the way to his desired goal (that’s bad), but his desired end is helping out his pal’s cutely ethnic family (that’s good). O’Connor goes for the money every time, whether it’s on a relatively casual level, framing Pilar and her child after a weepy phone conversation with Tommy with a photo of him with her late husband, to the most overt, like the aforementioned singing Marines bit. Truth be told, the main source of tension in the narrative of Warrior comes from waiting to see which cliché and manipulative trope O’Connor will employ next. We’ve got Brendan’s wife—O’Connor makes sure to give us a view of Morrison’s magnificent ass during a supposedly serious bathroom confrontation between these two hard-pressed average folks—acting out the compulsory role of whining concernedly about her husband’s health and safety when he wants to get back in the ring but eventually coming around to stand by her man at ringside. We’ve got Brendan’s school principal Zito (Kevin Dunn, of course) chewing him out, suspending him, and fending off the appeals of his students to watch Brendan’s fights, but cheering Brendan when watching him on television, and finally joining the kids to view the climactic bout. O’Connor doesn’t so much deploy information as wallop you over the head with it, resolutely failing the “show, don’t tell” test with a constant stream of backstory-dropping conversations and the incessant yammering of the fight callers Bryan Callen and Sam Sheridan, playing themselves, aptly, as the kinds of ESPN-ish commentators you want to strangle with their own entrails after five minutes.

Hollywood formula depends, of course, on the relative memory of an audience, which might remember one or two variations on a theme but often won’t recall the 2,000 or more before that. But Warrior is something new: a film where just about every scene, line, theme, motif, and visual cue seems to have been clipped out of some preexisting source, with a meretricious veneer of grainy steadicam realism and the gratuitous use of the “Ode to Joy” to make the audience feel just so fucking cultured, you know? The film’s attitude to the sport and the people who engage it in is curious: giving our two triumphant white heroes (Irish, of course, ever a safe niche identity) a small army of stock punks and ethnic foes, reminding us that most of those who fight the sport are “animals” amongst whom a teacher with a Beethoven theme tune is an incongruous stand-out, whilst getting off on the steroid-pumped physiques and blood-spattering action with unremitting gall. Warrior builds to apogees of absurd hooray-for-us hype by the time Brendan has to battle the hulking Russian champion Koba (Kurt Angle), who struts onto stage clad, I shit you not, in a jumpsuit emblazoned with hammer and sickle. O’Connor, who with Miracle (2004) revisited an iconic moment of Reaganite resurgence, makes it clear here that he’s trying to tap into a fantasy on the American Right of revisiting the Cold War battles in the fraught hope it will return coherence to its worldview and mettle to its ranks. Sadly, we don’t even get to hear Koba say “I must breaaak yooou.”

This film does seem, with all due respect to my U.S. friends and readers, to capture something almost pathological in aspects of the current American mindset. Warrior finally presents its two brothers locked in mortal combat where one breaks the arm of the other and bashes him into submission for the sake of pure financial desperation, with the side-effect of providing some decidedly nonfruity psychotherapy about turning rage that might be better expended on other targets on each other. Thus, the mistakes of the past cannot teach: they can only be recommitted with ever more hysterical, blunt force until you’re literally on your last legs, broken and bloodied, still commanding the allegiance of the uniformed ranks you nominally betrayed. In short, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that Warrior is pitching to be the Tea Party’s manifesto movie.

That the film holds together at all, and even develops a charge of emotional involvement that isn’t pure flimflam, is because of Hardy and Edgerton, and, to a lesser extent, Nolte. Edgerton, up until recently a fairly bland Aussie pretty boy kicking about in international cinema looking for a place to land, has, in his too-brief contribution to Animal Kingdom (2010) and this film, begun to age interestingly. His believably minimalist playing of Brendan’s mix of assailed intelligence, anxiety, and fighting gumption nicely contrasts Hardy’s glowering mass of oedipal anger. Thanks to them, a confrontation between the brothers on the Atlantic City beachfront delivers the right charge of lingering resentment curdling with grief to produce a hostility that will drive them to nearly tear each other apart in the ring. Nolte’s climactic moment, shouting Melville in Hardy’s face, is the sort of moment that can easily defeat an actor; I’m not sure even Nolte survives it, but he gives it a herculean try. Now bring on Godzilla and Mothra.

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