The discordant editing rhythms of The Cage Fighter convey an erratic sense of time’s passing. This raw temporal quality suits the documentary’s subject, Joe Carman, a cage fighter suffering from post-concussion syndrome who’s searching for that mythical beast of sports-land: the final bout that will grant him a sense of closure regarding his fading career. Director Jeff Unay plunges us into Carman’s life with little context. Scenes often appear to be separated by days or weeks, which one can discern by the varying thickness of Carman’s beard. The man’s facial hair also suggests a biological mood ring: When Carman is fully bearded, he’s often in warrior mode—and when his beard is lighter or absent, he’s attempting to honor a pretense of fully present husband and father. The editing whips us around between these states.
The film, to its credit, lacks the polish of a routine sports documentary. The act of surveying Carman links us empathetically with his family, who pleads with him to give up cage fighting. Carman’s wife, Norinda, is sick, suffering from memory loss and other unspecified ailments. We learn of her illness when she visits a doctor early in the film with her father. Carman is nowhere to be seen, and we never see him and Norinda discussing her problems. In fact, the issue of Norinda’s health is pointedly dropped for most of the film, whereas a more polished production might’ve periodically reminded us of her welfare, juggling a variety of subplots with the smoothness of a TV series. Unay seems to be catching as catch can, and he ferociously keeps the focus on Carman, both critiquing and indulging his subject’s tunnel vision.
The Cage Fighter isn’t sentimental about the notion of an aging sports hero who needs one more day in the proverbial sun, recognizing that desire as macho folly. Carman’s cage fighting feels like an addiction, with the fighter lying to his family and himself while he pursues a destructive habit with suicidal obsession. Unay films Carman’s fights with clinical pitilessness, casually elaborating on the sport’s unremitting brutality. In one of the film’s most wrenching scenes, Carman takes his four daughters to a fight, in a desperate bid to instill unity in his crumbling family. As he’s pummeled against a wall of the cage, one of the younger daughters weeps in agony. Carman’s cluelessness makes sense only to an addict, as he suggests the classic gambling junkie who takes his kids to the racetrack.
Addiction runs in Carman’s blood. His father is an alcoholic who’s too self-absorbed to support Carman in court while he fights to keep his first wife from relocating with their daughter. Carman confronts his father, and the men accuse the other of selfishness, getting into one of those arguments that seem destined only to inflict more emotional damage. They’re both right, of course, and the film’s central irony is Carman’s failure to equate his cage fighting with his father’s alcoholism. This friction, between two paternal addicts, is heartbreakingly encapsulated by Carman’s 40th birthday party, as Unay allows us to only glimpse a portion of the preparation and even less of the actual celebration. Once again, the film’s jagged editing achieves a kind of emotional effect, equating a moment of theoretical joy to unceremonious work between people who might prefer to avoid one another’s company.
Amid all this bleakness, one understands that Carman is drawn to fighting because getting in the ring represents a moment of transcendence for a man who works in a boiler room, a place of grubby, dispiriting anonymity, occasionally going home to a family for which he doesn’t feel good enough. Even when Carmen gets worked over during a fight—and he doesn’t seem particularly good at his chosen sport—he has the agency of a man who’s willing to suffer for his desires. His central rival, Clayton Hoy, is revealed to be a drifter and a loner, who leaves his own failed relationships in his wake. Having a shot together at a bar, the men discover that they’re metaphorical brothers, bound by torment, out to prove the wrong things to the wrong people. This revelation potentially emboldens Carman to make peace with his longing for glory in the cage, allowing him to become the man he was trying to be anyway. Too many films are about the realization of impossible dreams. Sometimes, it takes more courage to let an aspiration float away.