Warrior Wisdom: Gavin O'Connor Speaks

October 7, 2011
Insight into the storytelling of the critically acclaimed mixed martial arts film Warrior.
*This article contains spoilers*.

As critical acclaim has been lavished upon the Lionsgate Pictures release Warrior, one of the key points that has been made about the story is that unlike other sports movies, there's no clear sign that one character in particular is destined to stand tall at the conclusion of the film's mixed martial arts tournament.

That's exactly how writer/director Gavin O'Connor wanted it.

"Having done a film like [2004's Miracle]," O'Connor said, "where you know from the first frame of the film whom you're rooting for as it unfolds, I wanted to try to do something that kind of broke that model, where you're invested in two different people, and then forcing you to have to make a choice, which to me felt dramatically compelling and something that is a little more challenging for an audience."

However, while audience members may have gone back and forth about which brother they wanted to see win, the man behind the camera never had any doubt.

"I always knew who was going to win," said O'Connor, who co-wrote the script with Cliff Dorfman (Entourage) and Anthony Tambakis. "The trick to it, in my view, was that I had to get the audience to make an unconscious decision as the rounds unfolded to really understand and believe that Brendan needs to win to win, and Tommy needs to lose to win. The intention was that they both win for different reasons. The fight wasn't about the money and the prize. This was all personal stuff going on. So, what I was driving towards was this idea of what I call an intervention in a cage, where one brother saves the other brother's life by beating the s--t out of him."
In other words, when Tommy taps out in the final round, it's not about the rear naked choke Brendan has applied. As a fighter, Tommy had already shown that he wasn't about to submit when he let Brendan break his shoulder with an omoplata rather than concede defeat. Rather, it's about letting go of the violent rage that had gotten him to that point.

"The tap out is a metaphor for a guy who needs to surrender," O'Connor said, "for someone who needs to die at the hands of his brother so he can be reborn. If Tommy wins, he continues down this path of destruction. Tommy is living in so much rage, and so much anger and so much pain that he spends most of the movie trying to get his dad to drink, which he finally does, and the only act of compassion that you see Tommy commit in the whole movie is after Tommy gets his father to become the man that he was, and that's the beginning of Tommy's breakdown. Tommy needs to lose, because if he wins, he continues down this warpath that he's on, and that needs to stop. There'll never be any kind of redemption and resolution in his family if Tommy won. He'd win and walk out of the cage again."

Indeed, while O'Connor has, at times, described his film as a "love letter" to the sport, and referee Josh Rosenthal and fighters like Anthony "Rumble" Johnson and Nate Marquardt help make the MMA action compellingly realistic, audiences need to "walk out of the cage" to get the full meaning of the film.

"If I was just making a movie about two guys fighting in a cage," O'Connor said, "I'm dealing in the most superficial cinematic level that we can be realizing. I have no interest in that. This is a story about two brothers resolving 14 years of estrangement, coming from a home where they communicated through violence. That's the only way that they can heal and reclaim their lives, through violence, because that's the way they were raised."

When it's all over, just like Brendan and Tommy Conlon, O'Connor and his film end up winners.

Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/ Getty Images Entertainment