“Warrior”: a Hyper-Masculine Melodrama

Movie trailers are notoriously bad vehicles for judging the quality of a film, but for my money, few trailers have been such a poor indicator of the film’s ultimate reception as the one for 2011’s Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor). Upon its release, the film garnered great reviews, and an Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte. With the public, though, Warrior’s even more popular, with a devoted fanbase that ranks it on lists of most-underrated movies. The trailer doesn’t inspire a lot of hope, though—its enumeration of the film’s narrative looks so over-the-top, so contrived, so melodramatic.

In pop culture, “authenticity” is a mark of great art, while “artifice” is the domain of the low-brow. The melodrama, with its overwrought pathos and narrative excess, is treated like one of the most “artificial” genres. Its form and function have even lead some people to declare the genre dead, like Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. “Has the age of irony killed off the melodrama? Have we as a culture become too cynical and smart-assed to accept—yet alone embrace—the operatic emotions, heavy-handed plot twists, and sweeping character arcs endemic to melodramas?” Even the most popular contemporary genre auteurs, like Nicolas Sparks and Tyler Perry, distance themselves from the label.

There’s a new Nicholas Sparks movie out, accompanied by an ejaculatory profile in GQ magazine. Can you believe Nic Sparks does such charity work as funding a Christian private school to the tune of $10 million? Who ever heard of a rich guy using his money to advance the cause of fundamentalist Christianity? Alongside details like these, Sparks advocates for the artistic merit of his chaste, tight-jeaned odes to the imagined values of heartland America by saying “The characters in my books begin and end with authenticity, which is the difference between drama and melodrama.”

So, while melodrama is a genre that’s produced great works in the past, today it’s discussed as a trifle. Critics deride it and even its foremost practitioners argue that they don’t have anything to do with it. However, melodramas aren’t just known for improbable narratives and arch-drama. According to film theorist Linda Williams, “Melodramas are deemed excessive for their gender- and sex-linked pathos, for their naked displays of emotion.” In short: for their femininity.

Narrative conflicts are usually centered on family dynamics, impossible romance, maintaining the sanctity of the home—the most feminine space. Melodrama, according to scholar Christine Gledhill, “had a visible generic existence in the family melodrama and its lowly companion, the woman’s film.” When Sparks says that his paint-by-numbers stories of lovers torn asunder by tragedy, or kept together through Herculean feats of devotion, are “authentic,” he’s arguing that they aren’t just what Ann Douglas calls “soft-core emotional porn for women.”

Warrior is interesting because it’s one of the most beloved films of the 2010s while being a family melodrama. It’s escaped the stigma that the genre typically receives—despite its improbable narrative, countless people laud its authenticity. Like a traditional family melodrama, Warrior deals with family dynamics and aims to make its audience cry. Where Warrior departs from genre tradition, though, is with its hyper-masculinity.

As a movie, Warrior is so butch that 300 would discretely ask it to tone it down. The film centers on two estranged brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), who are both competing in an MMA tournament. Beyond the arena of martial arts, the film establishes its masculine bona fides early and often. The contest is called Sparta, to find “the toughest man on the planet.” When Tommy solicits his now-sober father (Nick Nolte) as a trainer, dad dusts off Tommy’s high school training chart and reveals the undefeated ancient Greek fighter Theogenes as his son’s role model. It’s not enough for Tommy to be merely a war hero; the audience is repeatedly told that Tommy saved his fellow Marines by “ripping the door off a tank with his bare hands.”

Even though Warrior deals with a fighting competition, it’s about family. Brendan is a high school teacher moonlighting as an MMA fighter, trying to cobble together enough money to avoid foreclosure on his home. Tommy is a Marine back from Iraq, whose tales of superhuman heroism make him a media sensation. Tommy’s fighting for the widow of a fellow Marine who died in combat. Tommy and this man became surrogate brothers while serving together—the military being the most socially acceptable place for two men who aren’t related to passionately love each other in an explicitly heterosexual way. Tommy still hates his brother for choosing to live with their mother after an ugly divorce.

All the hyper-masculine trappings that have come before are leading up to the film’s climactic ending. Before Brendan and Tommy face off in the ring, Brendan has pleaded with his brother for forgiveness. Tommy, however, refuses to allow himself to be vulnerable and love again, and goes into the ring vowing to defeat his brother and remain symbolically closed. During the final fight sequence, the film has mapped the possibility of Tommy’s victory as a triumph of isolation over family. As Brendan gets Tommy into a choke hold, to the soft strains of indie rock, Brendan begs his brother for forgiveness. When Tommy taps-out, he submits both physically and emotionally, making his last gesture a symbolic feminization.

The film theorist Rick Altman has a two-pronged approach to discussing genre, dealing with what he calls genre semantics versus genre syntax. Genre semantics are how a genre says something, and genre syntax is what it says. For instance, a Western’s semantic elements are cowboy hats, horses, Colt Peacemakers and Spencer Repeaters. The syntax of the Western, though, is narratives about imposing order on chaos, the glory of bringing “civilization” to the savages. So while traditional semantic elements of a family melodrama include mothers and the sacrifices they make, Warrior has allusions to ancient Greece, the Marine Corps, and men tenderizing each other’s torsos with uppercuts and knees. However, with its message of familial intimacy, Warrior shares the same generic syntax as other melodramas.

Not only does Warrior share the same narrative thrust as other melodramas, but it’s also trying to provoke the same audience reaction. Linda Williams calls melodrama a “body genre”: works in the canon aim to create an embodied response. Like a good slasher film is intended to quicken the heartbeat, melodrama is designed to create tears.

For a movie that is superficially about guys beating the shit out of each other, Warrior makes a lot of people cry. In a piece for Entertainment Weekly’s website, called “I’m Still Not Over the Ending of Warrior,” Samantha Highfill summarizes a lot of the audience’s response: “I went into what I thought was a movie about MMA and walked out with tear-stained cheeks.” Men in the comments repeat this sentiment. Remarkably, any comments section about Warrior will have dozens of male-indentified people attesting to the film’s power to make them cry.

A small sample of guys on YouTube who embodied the melodrama.

A small sample of guys on YouTube who embodied the melodrama.

If melodrama is disparaged as inherently artificial, then there’s no higher compliment than calling one authentic. Even a well-regarded contemporary work of traditional maternal melodrama like Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce miniseries gets knocked down a few pegs for its excess. At the Boston Globe, one of the most positive reviews still says “the miniseries is a soap opera, and…Haynes takes a few melodramatic moments too many feet over the top.”

Warrior, despite its absurd plot, has convinced countless people of its authenticity. Some reviews are honest enough to declare that the writer “assumed it was a true story,” and there are multiple Yahoo! Answers threads asking about the film’s veracity. Rather than such improbable elements dragging the film down to the level of melodrama, these contrivances elevate it to the level of “myth,” rendering it “primal and archaic” rather than overwrought. To be clear, we’re talking about a movie in which two brothers—a working-class hero and a super-soldier—are the two top MMA fighters in America, who must face each other to save their respective families.

Warrior is a very well-crafted film. However, it’s a unique object lesson in how much melodramatic excess a text can get away with when it’s hyper-masculine, rather than hyper-feminine.