Joe Carman has a face made for the movies, but it’s not a pretty one. With an unkempt beard and tired eyes, he looks like he’s trapped in the headlights of a world that won’t cut him a break. The 40-year-old Seattle figure at the center of “The Cage Fighter” is a broken man defeated by every aspect of his life. Still, he does what he can to bury his troubles with macho swagger whenever he steps into the ring, engaging in the competitive mixed martial arts fighting that his family has urged him to quit. Carman’s persistence is at once inspiring and tragic, a bloodied metaphor for battling forward against impossible odds.
The feature-length debut of director Jeff Unay, “The Cage Fighter” hails from a tradition of intimate cinema verité that encompasses so many details from the lives of its subject that it may as well be a scripted drama. Shot over the course of three years, the movie captures every facet of Carman’s tiring life: His domestic struggles with his second wife, who suffers from a bone disease; the legal problems he faces when his first wife threatens to take their children out of state; the denigration he receives from his crude, alcoholic father; Carman’s own uneven attempts to be a good parent. It’s a constant pileup of dead ends.
With all these pressures barreling down on him, Carman finds some modicum of comfort at the gym, where he endures grueling training sessions and routinely subjects himself to painful, messy brawls in front of screaming crowds. The showdowns make for riveting performances that provide Carman with an outlet for his frustrations and raise the possibility that he has a death wish. His wife and children plead with him to give it up, but Carman seems incapable of resisting the lure of the masculine authority unavailable to him beyond the ring. He’s empowered by the dangerous fantasy of it all, and enabled by the peers he finds at the gym. When his coach tells him that “normal people are on the couch right now,” that’s all the encouragement Carman needs to hear. His life is riddled with bland hardships, but cage fighting gives him a spectacular release.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about “The Cage Fighter,” a competent work of non-fiction filmmaking that doesn’t veer in any surprising directions, but it’s an impressive consolidation of several cinematic traditions. Above all, the setting calls to mind “The Wrestler,” another bracing and brutal portrait of an aging man trapped between his troubled family life and addiction to the ring. Carman is the spitting image of Robert De Niro circa “Raging Bull,” his face riddled with contradictions. He’s tough, resilient, and also curiously remote — incapable of explaining the nature of his commitment to fighting but so keen on keeping it up that he continues to train in secret. This ecosystem of testosterone-fueled fighting bears some similarity to the flamboyant displays of independent pro wrestlers in Robert Greene’s “Fake It So Real,” but Carman’s fights have no such blatant theatricality. These men punch and kick with purpose, and nobody seems to suffer the blows more heavily than Carman.
Unay sketches out the the sweaty physicality of the room with sights and sounds reminiscent of Frederic Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym,” but Unay’s just as capable of capturing the somber details of Carman’s life at home, where scenes of domestic squabbles unfold with the rawness of a neorealist drama. He shrinks into his body when his wife assails him for endangering his life, and storms out of the room when his father refuses to show any sympathy for his situation.
Carman’s only apparent solace comes from the goats he keeps in the backyard and the idiosyncratic advice he receives from his peers at the gym. “Fighters are kind of life strippers,” one of them says. “Every stripper has an expiration date.” Carman knows his obsessions grew stale a long time ago, his tattered body showing signs of concussions and possibly other worse things, but he’s not ready to let it go.
On top of all these problems, much of the unsettling footage in “The Cage Fighter” suggests that Carman is simply not that good at fighting, and he engages in one degrading fight after another as a kind of public self-flagellation; in the process, he drags others down with him. One of the most harrowing moments finds Carman inexplicably bringing his children to watch one fight, and they melt into tears watching their father sink into bloody defeat. Unay, who does the camerawork, peeks through the edges of the ring to capture the sheer primal intensity of these showdowns, and the resounding thumps and smacks become an experimental soundtrack for Carman’s anguish.
Given his exhibitionist tendencies, it’s hard to tell how much Carman is playing up his life story for the camera, but the result is a riveting portrait. However, no amount of visceral footage can get around some redundancy baked into the material. Once the various ingredients of Joe’s hardships come together, “The Cage Fighter” doesn’t have anywhere else to go, and simply lingers in his weary existence.
Still, the movie works as a fascinating psychological dissection, and avoids any precise judgement of Carman’s habits. He may be a reckless victim of lifelong challenges, but he doesn’t quit fighting for some underlying sense of purpose, and the movie generates a gripping suspense around that commitment. The movie doesn’t quite make its way to a happy ending, but Carman’s perseverance suggests he hasn’t given up looking for one.
“The Cage Fighter” premiered in the 2017 SF International Film Festival’s Launch section. It is currently seeking distribution.