This week, as the Telluride Film Festival wraps up and the Toronto Film Festival begins, a film opens in theaters that, if you would believe its TV and print ads, is essentially launching the awards season race many of those festival entries will probably finish.
It's "Warrior," writer-director Gavin O'Connor's story about two estranged brothers who literally fight out their differences when they both enter a high-stakes mixed martial arts contest. Following a well-received screening at ShoWest in Vegas earlier this year, O'Connor's latest has continued to win over critics and audiences in advance showings, promising to be the first must-see film of the fall.
Thankfully, the reason for this is not merely a dearth of competition, although stuff like "Apollo 18," "Shark Night 3-D" and "Bucky Larson" admittedly don't offer much in the way of counterprogramming. Rather, it's that O'Connor has crafted a work of entertainment that serves as a sort of perfect transition between the mindless blockbusters of the summer and the more substantive fare of the fall season.
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Case in point: O'Connor's 2004 "Miracle" was itself a minor masterpiece disguised as a conventional underdog sports film. Chronicling the rise of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, its tale was already familiar to many audiences, but O'Connor elevated his recounting of it via great performances and sharp direction -- not necessarily avoiding all (or any) sports-movie clichés, but muscling through them and making you care anyway, dammit.
Pretty much everything you think will happen in "Warrior" does, even in the way you expect; and yet you're buoyed by the clarity of the storytelling and the intensity of the performances. Much as in last year's "The Fighter," the character dynamics and the work of the performers onscreen helps the material transcend its conventional architecture.
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Speaking of the performances, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte and Tom Hardy all deliver Oscar-caliber work here. If nothing else, "Warrior" will be remembered as the film that helped Edgerton and Hardy break into the public consciousness and become the superstars their work in the independent world suggested they could be. After "Bronson" and "Inception," Hardy was already poised to break out – he'll be appearing in "The Dark Knight Rises" as its villain -- but in "Warrior" his talent is undeniable, giving a potentially one-dimensional character substance, depth and incredible emotional weight.
Edgerton, meanwhile, has the harder role playing an understated "good guy," the sort of character that seems to attract less attention. But his unshowy, wholesome resolve should easily place him among Hollywood's current slate of leading men.
Perhaps more than anything, though, O'Connor's film, not unlike the best blockbusters, delivers the kinds of emotional payoffs that don't just satisfy, they gratify -- they fulfill our need to see goodness prevail or relationships mend or emotional wounds heal in a spectacular, triumphant way. At the same time, the acting work gives these payoffs a genuine substance, and even subtlety, that makes this, again, more than just another sports movie, another underdog movie.
There's real pain in these characters' collective past, and they each exorcise it in different ways, but O'Connor gives their efforts time and space to breathe. At two hours and 20 minutes, he doesn't merely rush past their problems or bottle them up for release in a single fountain of exposition; he issues details piecemeal in the way that a more natural conversation might unfold, and in many cases leaves spaces between these supposedly formative incidents so that audience members have to connect the dots themselves.
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In other words, it's a movie that makes you do a little work, but rewards your effort. Or better yet, think of O'Connor's thoughtful, crowd-pleasing drama as the first step in flexing your filmgoing muscles after a summer of slacking off: It might not seem like a lot of fun before you start, but it feels incredibly good while you're experiencing it, and best of all, it prepares you for tougher challenges down the road. "Warrior" won't merely be the film's title, but it'll stand for what it turned you into -- cinematically speaking -- when you watched it.