Very Highly Recommended.  Should rival the most praised films of the year.

WarriorI’m sure I am not alone when I acknowledge that I approached seeing Warrior with a great deal of trepidation. To begin with, I wouldn’t make the effort to turn on the TV to watch any type of mixed martial arts competition, so how could any movie centered on the same subject sustain any meaningful interest?

Given that background, let me say without risk of exaggeration that Warrior was by far the greatest surprise I have experienced in a theater this year. It is Greek tragedy masquerading as a martial arts film. It plays out with more emotional resonance than last year’s Oscar nominated The Fighter and makes all the now ancient Rocky movies look like comic book fodder, including the original.

Additionally, Warrior is no more a mixed martial arts film than Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) was actually a film about professional wrestling. To the contrary, in both films the sport itself serves as a small nucleus around which swirls complex human relationships in various tormented intersecting orbits.

Furthermore, a central figure in both films is a recovering alcoholic father trying to reconnect with a child following an estrangement resulting from years of pitiful drunkenness and dissipation. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke sought fruitlessly to reach out to a daughter who no longer cared, and in Warrior we find a father trying to rebuild a bridge to two alienated sons who are long past forgiveness.

In a stunning performance, Nick Nolte plays Paddy Conlon, the above-referred-to broken-down father of two adult sons who proudly announces that he is in his 1000th day of sobriety. Suddenly the youngest, Tommy, appears on his doorstep, where he hopes that his father will train him for a national martial arts contest taking place in Atlantic City that is offering $5 million to the winner.The only catch is that Tommy demands that his father give him professional guidance and absolutely nothing more. Simply put, Tommy holds his father in complete and utter contempt.

A second son, Brendan, a married secondary school physics teacher with three children and a boatload of financial problems. Without his wife’s knowledge, he returns on a part-time basis to his previous profession, in this case moonlighting in sleazy martial arts contests held in strip clubs. Suspended by his school as a result of negative publicity, his only hope out of his financial hole is the same martial arts contest that his brother is entering, although neither has any idea that the other will be in competition.

What elevates Warrior into a drama of great substance are the performances of Nolte as the grieving father and Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as sons who want nothing to do with a disgraced father or with each other. All three deserve to be singled out, but let me start with Nolte.

As most of you know, Nolte has descended in real life from a time when he was voted People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man of the Year” to a guy who may be the subject of the most creepy mugshot in the history of drunk driving arrests. The irony of Warrior is that his character is seeking redemption in much the same way as is doing away from the big screen. Nolte the man is inseparable from his character, Paddy Conlon, and you ache for both as they try to reach across a chasm on the other side of which is their lost dignity and self-respect.

But it is the combined performances of Mr. Hardy and Mr. Edgerton that takes this extraordinary film to a level that would make Shakespeare proud. While we last saw Mr. Hardy as the satirical British sidekick of Leonardo DiCaprio in Christopher Nolan’s wildly inventive Inception, it is impossible to for me to believe that his searing portrayal of Tommy Conlon will not be recognized at Oscar time. An ex-Marine fleeing demons of dark malevolence, he is a profoundly tortured soul. He is clearly consumed by the passionate hatred of his father in particular and mankind in general. Something horrible has happened to him, and he cares for no one including himself.

If you happen to see the intriguing Animal Kingdom, which won an Oscar nomination last year for Jackie Weaver, you’ll recognized Mr. Edgerton from his memorable portrayal of a sociopathic brother of a low-rent crime family. Here he plays a polar opposite as a caring husband and father who is on the verge of losing the family home as a result of mammoth medical bills flowing from his most youngest child’s heart problems. While his wife (Jennifer Morrison in a heartfelt performance) opposes his re-entry into the violent martial arts world, he says to her in a crushing emotional moment, “I will not see our family move backwards.”

Clearly, the two Conlon brothers are on a collision course as they prepare for the all-or-nothing competition in Atlantic City. Along the way there are gut-wrenching moments where the boys repeatedly reject their heartbroken father’s attempts to make some connection. Of particular note is a scene when Nolte confronts Hardy as he sat in front of a slot machine, imploring his son to accept his apology. In a moment of anger, rage and anguish not matched in any movie released this year, Hardy replies to his father, “I liked you better as a pathetic drunk. The only thing my brother and I have in common is our hatred of you.” You can feel Nolte’s heart break as tears fill his eyes.

Later that evening, Hardy returns to their hotel suite where Nolte is staggering around with a largely consumed bottle of whiskey in his hand, wailing in despair. Hardy walks over to him, throws his arms around him and then escorts his father to a bed where Nolte lays in his arms as he caresses his head. There wasn’t a person in the theater at that moment who wasn’t wiping away tears.

Warrior also contains a not so subtle message about the present moral climate of our country. Rather than try to create a society that protects these decent, hardworking folks from financial ruin, we instead want to perpetuate the status quo by making sure the millionaires and billionaires in our society do not have to pay a bit more to promote the common good. Put another way, who cares if millions cannot afford proper healthcare for their children as long as we can cut the inheritance tax for dilettantes like Paris Hilton and Donald Trump’s children. It is unforgivable, it is condemnable.

For those of you who pride themselves on seeing the best films of the year, then you must find your way into the theater to catch Warrior. It is not so much that it will connect with your heart as break it. The empathy that it will generate for all of its characters, lead and supporting, is so heartbreakingly real that you want to reach out and hug them saying, “It’s all right, it’s going to be all right.” It is a movie of enormous substance, and I can think of no higher praise.