Director Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior may be his most Irish film to date. An intense glimpse into the world of mixed martial arts fighting, it’s also the story of one Irish American family’s journey from brokenness to reparation. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to O’Connor about the star making performances from Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton.
If you’re going to be a fighter you’re going to need something to fight for. That’s the premise of Irish American film director Gavin O’Connor’s powerful new film Warrior (which opens nationwide on Friday). But finding out just who you want to fight for is the film’s hardest question.

What could be more Irish than two fighting brothers vying for their father’s legacy while at the same time trying to step out of his shadow?

Director Gavin O’Connor, 47, born and raised on Long Island, takes us straight into Eugene O’Neill territory, but O’Neill was never this visceral or violent.

First we meet Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) who’s returned home after 14 years away. Tommy and his mother high tailed it long ago to escape Paddy (Nick Nolte), the abusive husband and father who made their lives a daily misery.

Meanwhile Tommy’s brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) has managed to find a better life for himself away from all of them, thanks to the love of a good woman and through becoming a husband and father.

What they -- and we -- don’t know is that the two brothers, who haven’t seen each other in years, are now on a collision course that will ultimately force them to deal with their messy past in the present. 

They’ll be squaring off in the ring, where each man is literally fighting for his life, though for very different reasons.

The film feels so personal and the performances from Hardy and Edgerton are so emotionally authentic, that watching it you can’t help wondering if it’s a true story somehow. So the first question to ask O’Connor might be what inspired it?

“If I knew where it came from I’d go there all the time,” O’Connor replies with a hearty laugh during an interview with the Irish Voice, quoting the songwriter Leonard Cohen.

“I really don’t know where this film came from. There was something going on in my life with the idea of forgiveness that I was struggling with, or trying to understand.

“And I mean true forgiveness, not just saying the words. Real forgiveness in your heart. That was going was on in my life and that needed to be explored.”

That’s a tantalizing admission, but he lets a silence fall for a moment. Perhaps he’s considering what to reveal and what to conceal.

“The idea of brothers and estrangement is something that I’ve dealt with in my films. (Colin Farrell and Ed Norton played brothers-in-law on either side of the law in his last film, Pride and Glory). Certain personal things had gone on in my own life.

“My brother and I were separated when I was a child, we went with different parents. There were those personal things going on.”

Reading between the lines then, there’s more than a bit of personal back story informing the stories depicted on the screen. That could help explain the film’s at times quite staggering emotional power.

But it’s the star making performances from Hardy and Edgerton that lift this film above the boxing genre and turn into something far finer than the sum of its parts.

“The thing I learned from Pride and Glory is that people like to feel a little better leaving the theater than they did coming in,” O’Connor laughs.

“I don’t know whether I need to go and get drunk or take a really long shower and clean myself.”

So O’Connor admits it feels good that critics are responding so well to his latest work. And he’s not resting on his laurels; he plans to come to back to New York next year.

“We’re adapting the film The Hustler into a stage play that I hope to take to Broadway,” he explains.

“I’ll be exploring my Irish roots further. It took me two years to get all the rights.”

Meanwhile in Warrior mixed martial arts (MMA) was something that O’Connor kept returning to because he hadn’t really seen it in cinema he says.

“I thought I was something to explore as a backdrop to the film. The whole idea of fighting in many ways made it a film about kick boxers,” he says.

O’Connor calls the main events in the film, the battles between the two brothers inside the locked walls, an intervention in a cage.

“One brother saves the other brothers life by beating the s*** out of him,” O’Connor adds.

The backdrop of the film could hardly be more recognizable or more Irish. A Pittsburgh setting, a distant, uncommunicative father, a working class environment and years of unexpressed resentments.

“These are kids who grew up communicating with violence,” says O’Connor. “These two brothers expiate their difficult past and heal the damage through violence.

“I told Tommy (Hardy) your fights are like a crack addicts, when they need the high they hit the pipe

like it’s a -- – it’s so quick and immediate. You just need to get the high and then you’re done. It’s a very godless act.”

Brendan (Edgerton) may not be as a talented a fighter as Tommy, but his heart is bigger and he wants it more. That makes this David and Goliath matchup completely believable.

“I incorporated the tale of Moby Dick into the film because it’s a metaphor for the relationship between Tommy and his father Paddy,” says O’Connor.

“The thing about Moby Dick is that at heart it’s a very simple plot -- there’s only one white whale in the ocean. When you’re a boy growing up in a hostile home you imagine it’s unique, it’s happening only to you.

“So Tommy looks at his dad as the white whale that’s unlike anybody else’s father, and this white whale bit him (in the book it bites off Captain Ahab’s leg). Tommy is Ahab.”

In Warriors Tommy looks at his father as the man who has destroyed his family, and as the whale who ate him.

Now Tommy has come home after 14 years, and his plan is to destroy the white whale that is his father by encouraging him to start drinking again. To become the person he was. Tommy has come home to kill his father.

But things don’t go quite as planned. For one thing, his father is no longer the man Tommy remembers. He’s sober. That throws everything upside down.

So Tommy spends the film trying to drive his father to drink, and he eventually succeeds. But in that moment Tommy sees himself becoming his father, and that leads to his own breakdown.

That’s where Warrior finds its power. The journey is toward Tommy’s rebirth.

“To get Tommy to surrender, to reintroduce him to his own humanity in all of its aspects -- emotionally, spiritually, psychologically -- is the journey of this film. This doesn’t come easy to these guys. These are Irish kids.”

The difference between Tommy and his brother Brendan is that Brendan is living in his higher self. Because of the love of a good woman and his own children he’s in a more elevated place, a more spiritually minded place. He’s a pillar in his community, he’s a wonderful teacher and his students love him.

“But you know what, 15 years earlier he had been drinking in bars and throwing fists, he was that guy in the bar. So he has both sides to him and I thought Joel Edgerton was perfect for the role because you could see both sides to him. He delivers a great performance because he has to play both sides,” says O’Connor.

The generational battle, the stoic Irish father who withholds the good word, and the fact that it’s such a deeply personal work must mean there’s a major payoff for O’Connor creatively.
“I can only hope that people will see it and connect with it,” he answers.

That seems assured. At a recent screening in Santa Barbara in California a woman came up to O’Connor after it ended and she told him, “I haven’t spoken to my brother in over 20 years, but I’m calling him tonight because he needs to be forgiven.”

O’Connor was stunned. As praise goes, it was pretty near perfect.