The movie Warrior was released on September 9, 2011. In its official trailers, the movie is presented as being about a mixed martial arts competition in which two estranged brothers end up fighting each other in the championship bout for the title of “the toughest man on the planet.” While the movie is pitched to a broad audience, the marketing presentation belies the depth of its themes. If all you knew of the movie was what you saw in the trailer or what’s said of it in reviews, even and especially reviews offering praise, then you wouldn’t know the movie derives its most significant themes from Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick.
The true theme of Warrior is the complete breakdown that occurs in families when sons no longer want to be understood as their father’s legacy. Manliness compounds this because the greatness of man is that he seeks greatness. Specifically, the spiritedness of manly nature consists in the way that men always strive to chart their own course, even when they also strive to honor the legacy of their father. The tension in balancing such spiritedness to be one’s own man while honoring one’s origins simply is the nature of man at his greatest. Here we enter the proverbial depths, since in speaking of the nature of man one is speaking of one of the few questions worth asking, those very rare kinds of questions from which truly great books of the Western tradition have emerged as offering answers which orient in a definitive way the Western tradition itself. In speaking of the nature of man we’ve stumbled upon the question “What is man?” The best evidence that this question is what Warrior is itself most concerned with emerges from the opening scene, and it’s introduced as such by nothing less than one of the greatest books of American literature.
We begin from the beginning, but it turns out that this beginning is in the middle of things. Canvassing a rather dismal horizon of industrialized Pittsburg with The National’s “Start A War” playing in the background, Warrior begins with an old man (Paddy Conlon, played by Nick Nolte) leaving a church, Bible in hand as he says goodbye to the other congregants. This initial juxtaposition is jarring. We’re witnessing an apparently pious and pleasant old man leaving church as we listen to the following lyrics playing almost unobtrusively:
“We expected something,
Something better than before,
We expected something more.
Do you really think
You can just put it in a safe behind a painting
Lock it up and leave?
Walk away now and you’re gonna start a war…”
The confluence of what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing are such that two of the greatest elements of life are being thrust upon us: God and war. Further, they’re thrust upon us in a way that what we’re hearing emphasizes the human experience in life of failed expectations and the all-too-human act of closing oneself off to those failures by simply walking away from them. Simultaneously, what we’re seeing suggests the ever-present possibility of man’s greatness, namely, the longing to redeem oneself. Something has gone terribly wrong, so wrong that the fundamentals in life of God, war, and redemption have taken centerstage. The beginning of the movie is historically ever-present. Indeed, the theme of redemption and, in particular, redemption in the eyes of God, is as old as human nature itself.
That we’re meant to experience the presence of these defining elements to life is suggested by what immediately happens next. In his car, Paddy begins to listening to an audiobook. Pressing play, the narrator says the following:
(Enter Ahab: Then, all.)
It was not a great while after the affair of the pipe, that one morning shortly after breakfast, Ahab, as was his wont, ascended the cabin-gangway to the deck…”
It’s unmistakable that Paddy is listening to Melville’s Moby-Dick. Specifically, Paddy is listening to the chapter in which we are first introduced to why Moby Dick is not merely a whale but, as the full title proclaims, the whale. Moreover, tied as it is to its own previous beginning, and much like the opening of the movie itself, the suggestion is that all beginnings involve an inherent arbitrariness. It’s significant for us that in a later chapter entitled “The Honor and Glory of Whaling,” Ishmael begins by saying that “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” Life is always beginning in the middle of things.
Paddy will be listening to Moby-Dick throughout the entirety of the movie, and key lines of the book will be relayed at critical junctures. Why? Because Melville’s Moby-Dick is concerned with “all the generations of whales, and men,” which is to say, with the entirety of man’s understanding of his relationship to God along with the transmission of that understanding to his fellow men. To pursue the whale is to pursue the greatest of God’s creations other than man himself. It’s one thing to pursue the whale in order to behold the magnificent power of its creator, but it’s something quite different to pursue the whale in order to become its master and possessor. To pursue the whale in order to possess it is to pursue what is not necessarily granted to man by God, and what is not granted to man by God can be granted by man to man – from a father to his son.
In quickly moving back and forth between Paddy driving home and his son Tommy (played by Tom Hardy) arriving in wait at his door for him, we hear the all-important scene in Moby-Dick:
“ ‘It’s a white whale, I say,’ resumed Ahab, as he threw down the topmaul; ‘a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.’ ”
Ahab is introducing his men to the true object of their adventure on the Pequod, and we’re similarly being introduced to the true object of Warrior. Specifically, Paddy and Tommy have been estranged for fourteen years, and whatever characterizes the nature of the relationship between Ahab and the whale looms over that of Paddy and Tommy. The discussion between Paddy and Tommy that follows reveals the extent to which that relationship resonates with the themes of Moby-Dick that are simultaneously being introduced by the movie. Like the whale in Moby-Dick, the issue is how the father and son understand their pursuit of the other and how that pursuit relates to God.
Pensive and disheveled, Tommy is sitting upon the steps of Paddy’s doorway, downing pills with alcohol as he waits. Greatly surprised by Tommy’s arrival, Tommy says, “I was just passing through, and I figured why not have a bout with the old man.” Complimenting the care Paddy has shown in the upkeep of his old car, Tommy reveals the tension between the two: “Well, you always did take good care of her. Paddy Conlon, a man of priorities.” Paddy can provide exemplary care for things, but apparently his family had not been one of those things. After a long silence followed by a curious grin, Tommy offers Paddy a drink while emphasizing that his mom had taught him to never arrive empty-handed as a guest. Paddy acknowledges, “She did, but that’s not for me anymore, Tommy.” Confused, Tommy asks him if he changed brands. Paddy smiles lovingly, shaking his head no and inviting him inside. The screen fades to black and the title of the movie emerges in all white. The stark contrast now marking the true beginning of the movie underscores the contrasting tensions we’ve just witnessed at play in what we might call its curious pre-beginning.
Inside, Paddy begins making coffee as Tommy looks meticulously over the living area of the home he grew up in. While looking over the books in the room, Tommy further provokes Paddy by noting that the home lacks a woman’s touch. Upon Paddy’s response of “No more women for me,” Tommy casually reveals the source of the wound between them: “Yea, it must be hard to find a girl who can take a punch nowadays.” Paddy was an abusive drunk. The church he has just come home from might have been an evening service or it might have been an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In either case, Paddy is on the road to redemption, as has just been suggested by the books Tommy has looked over in the living room. On the table next to Paddy’s recliner, the Bible. On the mantle over the fireplace next to the childhood photos Tommy’s examining, Steinbeck and Dostoevsky. Paddy’s redemption includes not only a return to God but also a journey into the greatest books of the Western canon. Paddy has found something about the great books that’s invaluable to his own redemption, a window into worlds not his own but from which he can make his own better.
In offering Tommy coffee, Paddy has entirely confused him: “Coffee? You haven’t seen a guy in fourteen years and you aren’t gonna have a drink with him?” Patty’s sober, and he tells Tommy that his sobriety is approaching a thousand days. Confounded, Tommy takes another drink and returns to examine the childhood photos on the mantle, focusing especially upon a picture of a couple with their daughters. Taking careful notice, Paddy says “He’s a school teacher down in Philly.” Tommy has a brother, Brendan (played by Joel Edgerton), from whom he’s also estranged. Clearly moved, Tommy continues looking over the photos decorating the wall and an end-table next to the mantle, turning on a light on to see them better and picking up one of particular importance. It’s a photo of a woman holding a child. It’s his mother holding him.
Examining the photo closely, Tommy says: “So you found God, huh? That’s awesome. Mom kept calling out for him but he wasn’t around. I guess Jesus was down at the mill forgiving all the drunks, huh? …Who knew…”
The breakdown of the relationship between Paddy and Tommy — father and son — has culminated in Tommy being estranged from Paddy, his own brother, and even God. To put an even finer point on it, whereas Paddy seeks redemption, Tommy embraces nihilism. For Paddy to see his own legacy, his end, in Tommy is for him to see himself as nothing. For Tommy to see himself as his own beginning is for him to see his beginning as his end, as entirely without family, an isolated existence of meaninglessness. Here, in the starkest of terms, we see that it takes but a single generation in the breakdown of the bond between fathers and sons to reduce the genealogy of generations of fathers and sons to complete nothingness. To lose the youth is to lose everything.
Paddy, visibly pained by the memories, says nothing. He knows he’s earned the criticism — self-knowledge, owning responsibility, is nothing if not the very first criterion of redemption, and certainly central among the virtues of an honorable man. The difficulty resides in how justice and injustice are two sides of the same coin in which the soul most especially traffics. The same longing for justice that motivates a man toward redemption is the same longing that motivates another in his indignation toward injustice. One man’s redemption might be injustice in the eyes of another man, and we immediately see that this is the case between Paddy and Tommy. Not waiting further for Paddy to respond, Tommy says “So are you gonna ask about her or just sit there all sober?” Tommy resents Paddy’s sobriety. Redemption requires that one come to terms with the past. Paddy’s sobriety consists in almost a thousands days of moving beyond the past, but the past he’s moving beyond is Tommy’s everyday present. For Paddy, it was “enough” to have learned that Tommy’s mother had died in Tacoma and that Tommy had entered the Marines. That’s not “enough” for Tommy.
Sitting down in the chair across from Paddy Tommy says: “Well, that’s too bad because you could’ve gotten some good details. You could’ve heard about her coughing up blood on her knees in a shitbox with no heat, having me rub her down with holy water because she didn’t have no insurance. All the while waiting for your pal, Jesus, to save her.”
Visibly holding back tears, Paddy simply says he’s sorry, to which Tommy replies: “Well, that’s good to know that you’re sorry, pop. It goes a long way. I think I liked you better when you were a drunk.” With those words, Tommy’s head nods over into the chair and he drops the lid to the bottle of alcohol he’s been drinking as he falls asleep.
The phrase “I liked you better when you were a drunk” will be repeated much later by Tommy, and it undergirds the most important themes from Moby-Dick in the movie. Specifically, the fate of Paddy’s sobriety resides in his relentless pursuit of redemption with Tommy. For Paddy, Tommy is the whale. Yet, Paddy is not Ahab or, better stated, Paddy is a recovering Ahab, an Ahab who is finding his way back to God. Like Ahab, he will go down in his pursuit but, as a partially redeemed Ahab, Paddy will go down for the sake of his crew — Tommy and Brendan — not despite them. Indeed, in the most poignant scene of the movie Paddy will sacrifice his sobriety in a last-ditch effort to win back Tommy by becoming the drunkard Tommy says he prefers.
There, completely intoxicated and listening to Moby-Dick, we discover the role of the great books in Paddy’s redemption. In moving from saying “…they’re lost” to “…we’re all lost…we’ll never make it back,” Paddy has read himself into the book, he has poeticized his own ending by means of Moby-Dick. This is the power of the great books: they provide us with the most powerfully completed examples of greatness to use when we seek meaning through our own beginnings, middles, and ends in life.