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Last Friday saw the opening of Warrior , a Mixed Martial Arts film that turns out to be about something else: a fierce-yet-muted struggle between a father, Paddy, and his grown sons, Brendan and Tommy. It stars Tom Hardy (late of Inception and soon to be seen as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises ), Joel Edgerton, and the redoubtable Nick Nolte, and it’s tracking 84 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. As secular pictures go, it’s pretty religious. As religious pictures go, it’s pretty secular. And as sports pictures go, it’s pretty profound. Recently, I spoke with director (and co-writer) Gavin O’Connor, whose work includes the 2004 hockey sleeper Miracle , about how he managed it.

Matthew Lickona: When Tommy talked about being 12 years old and having to rub down his mother with holy water while she was dying, I winced. You must have some familiarity with certain aspects of northeastern Irish Catholic culture.

Gavin O’Connor: It was familiar terrain for me, yes. I’m from Huntington, Long Island, and that world is one I’m pretty comfortable in.

ML: In a lot of movies, God is either not a factor at all, or else He becomes sort of a central figure. Here, you have the opposite of both in a way. Tommy hates God, but he hates Him for not being there. He wishes there was a God, but he can’t believe, not after watching his mother die while she begged Jesus to save her. And not after his own father offered such a sad representation of what a loving father is supposed to be.

GO: True. Tommy was a believer. But after losing his mother and then going to war and seeing some horrific things, he’s become, in essence, Godless. I even have his father say that to him”during the scene in the hotel room, Paddy calls Tommy Ahab, and he calls him Godless. The whole MMA fight between Brendan and Tommy and the end of the movie is really spiritual warfare”it’s fighting for Tommy’s soul. In a metaphorical way, Tommy needs to die at the hands of his brother so that he can be reborn again, become a believer again. I never wanted to preach, but there’s a spirituality, a religious kind of a thing, bubbling under the surface of the film.

ML: Speaking of religion”I liked that it showed up in the opening confrontation between Tommy and Paddy”with Tommy scorning the notion that Paddy has found God and sobered up”but then didn’t get mentioned again. It provides a context. But the story is about people struggling with each other.

GO: Still, the themes of redemption and forgiveness are all very apparent in the fabric of the story.

ML: And Tommy really has something to forgive. He’s got a legitimate complaint”he really was horrifically damaged by his father. And yet Tommy has to humble himself and admit the damage he himself as done before he can achieve any kind of peace. He has to see his father destroyed at his own hands . . .

GO: . . . the way he thinks his father destroyed him as a child. There’s an expression, “Hurt people hurt people.” Tommy needs to surrender, and the notion of tapping out in an MMA fight is symbolic of that surrender.

ML: And that surrender is hard. I sympathized when he told Paddy, ‘The suit doesn’t fit.’ He doesn’t buy his father’s conversion; he thinks it’s an exterior act.

GO: Tommy comes home to go to war with his father. The father he knew when he left home 14 years ago was a drunk. Now, Tommy is coming home drunk, and his father is 1000 days sober. It’s all turned upside-down. In essence, Tommy spends the film trying to get his father to become the person he was. And his only moment of compassion for his father is after he gets him to drink.

ML: So anytime you have a movie about two brothers and a father, and one brother goes away and the other stays, you’re going to be reminded of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Especially since Brendan, the son who stayed with the father, sort of has his stuff together a little more than Tommy, the son who left. He’s made a life for himself, made some kind of peace with his past. Was that intentional?

GO: In some ways, when you’re creating, there’s a mystery to it. I try not to question when things come up, when they emerge. Some of this stuff wasn’t conscious, but when it was finished, I could look back and say, ‘Okay, I understand where that came from.’ It wasn’t a mistake, but it also wasn’t some conscious thing I was trying to force. It was more organic than that”never calculated, but still appropriate. And sort of inevitable, because of who I am, my own upbringing. Things like that are part of who I am.

ML: Along those same lines”I don’t want to reach too hard, but I was struck by the use of “Ode to Joy” in a Mixed Martial Arts training montage. So I went and looked up the lyrics, and I found this: “Brothers, beyond the star-canopy must a loving father dwell.”

GO: I have to admit, I also ended up looking at the lyrics”but that was not intentional, just a beautiful coincidence. I had read about Greg Jackson, the MMA trainer who used Bach and the whole idea of syncopation”the notes between the notes”in his training. I liked that. I chose “Ode to Joy” because I think it’s one of the most majestic pieces of music you can ever hear. By the time I read the lyrics, the decision had already been made. But I thought, “This is certainly a propos.”

ML: Okay, what about the very last image we see before the screen fades to black? It looks like it’s of the Madonna part of a Madonna and child tattoo on Tommy’s arm. . It sort of reads as a bookend to the rosary we see hanging from the rear-view mirror at the film’s opening.

GO: Here’s the thing: Tommy, in real life, has that tattoo. We didn’t paint that on him, but I certainly took advantage of it.

Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper.

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