Two people stand at opposite ends of an arena in designated spots. They wear Kevlar vests and belts with pistols stuck into them, sometimes in a holster, mostly not. A referee hovers somewhere above, and at a predetermined signal, the two people open fire on each other. The first person to leave their spot, loses.
In the world of Blunt Force Trauma (2015), the American-Colombian coproduction helmed by Ken Sanzel, these underground dueling sessions, organized like MMA fights, can be found across the American South and Latin America, in empty factories, abandoned train depots, and isolated underground parking garages. Contenders duel not for honor, but for money and, if they’re good, fame. The best of them, Zorringer (Mickey Rourke), is so high up there that he lives on a Colombian mountain and has an associate pick his opponents from all over and drive them to him. John (Ryan Kwanten) is a promising hotshot who wants a duel with Zorringer, and to get it he goes from place to place dueling, winning, and hoping to get The Invite. At one place, he meets (but doesn’t duel) Colt (Freida Pinto), a fiery duelist who doesn’t wait for her opponent to stagger away but keeps firing till s/he drops out. Colt is seeking the Red Wolf, a legendary duelist who killed her brother, and she hitches a ride with John. They head south, following reports of the Red Wolf’s duels.
I’ll tell you the rest of the plot later, but it really isn’t that important. The film is less about these two people than it is an exploration of the culture of these duels, and of what kind of person would take part in them. John and Colt form a partnership of sorts: They comment on each other’s duels, buy Kevlar vests together (which are one-use-only), treat each other’s wounds, sometimes have sex, and even go through an ordeal with some corrupt Mexican cops together. Along the way, the film never passes up an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of their choices and actions. For viewers drawn to the film by its premise of dueling, this makes for a long slog. But for those, like me, who see a fascinating culture and want to know more, this film is a languorous gondola ride for the mind.
Professional duelists earn their living by shooting it out with strangers in a sport that has every chance of going wrong, and almost guaranteed injuries even when it doesn’t. At one point, a duelist is shot in the leg by his nervous opponent, and the referee declares a win-by-foul. Near the end of the film, John duels a mountain of a man who simply doesn’t budge, and so many bullets fly that each needs a second magazine clip; John wins, but his recovery from internal injuries (hence the name of the film) takes a whole retraining montage sequence—a very slow-paced, laidback montage sequence, to be sure. Staring death and dismemberment in the face for a living, in a situation devoid of any strategic or tactical advantage, tends to make one look long and hard into the abyss. Extraneous superficialities fall away, leaving John and Colt laser-focused on their current purposes: Zorringer and the Red Wolf, respectively. Their partnership of convenience blossoms into camaraderie, literal fellow travelers, and their sex is based not on romance but on proximity to and sharing of Being. In fact, the most romantic scene in the film is completely asexual: After Colt discovers that the Red Wolf himself was killed in a duel, her new lack of purpose in life makes her reckless, and she starts an impromptu late-night/early-morning duel with John in a city park, clearly seeking death. Backed by an angsty hard rock soundtrack, probably the only time in the film the music picks up the pace, shots fly as Colt grazes John’s ear, while John can’t even bear to hit Colt. It seems they’re in it together for the long haul.
The brush-up with the Mexican cops is interesting as well, for its unexpected subversion. We think that this is finally when all the crazy shoot-outs will come face to face with the law and the outside world; instead, the cops are “fans” of the sport and demand that John duel another prisoner in the courtyard of an abandoned home. With one cop keeping an eye on the handcuffed Colt, the other cop, the prisoner, and John form a triangle around a dry stone fountain, with the cop waving his gun around to force them to duel. The prisoner, who doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy, is quaking in fear, and John decides at the last minute to shoot the cop, shoot the other cop, free the prisoner (and Colt), and take all the Kevlar vests he can find. In this post-Western world, there is no “outside”; the protagonists’ reality bends the rest of the film into their world.
When John finally gets The Invite after duking it out with the giant, he and Colt are taken to an inn at the foot of Zorringer’s mountain, a waiting room of sorts for his challengers. The aura of the place is established by constant rain, an ennui-filled soundtrack of solitary guitar strings, and an actual shoot-out when some other challengers try to rob our duo, which ends in the robbers’ deaths and the nonchalant innkeeper’s dragging away the bodies and mopping up the blood. With each passing day, the inn empties one person at a time until, finally, it’s John’s turn, and he leaves Colt behind.
Mickey Rourke does a grand job portraying a man who gained his position in life by climbing atop a pile of defeated gunslingers, bringing all the sagacity, gravitas, and seen-it-all melancholy to be found in his long and storied career. When they finally meet, Zorringer monologues to John about the origins of the dueling sport (drug cartels testing Kevlar vests), the futility of achieving one’s dreams, and the absurdity of a life with nothing left to achieve. We get the impression that, whereas for John, Colt, and the other duelists the sport is a thrilling means to an ordinary end (revenge, success, money), for Zorringer it is the only thing left in life worth doing—that if challengers stopped coming, he would die for lack of will to live. Like Colt in her duel with John, Zorringer embraces death, disdaining even to wear a Kevlar vest. Playing with his caged bird, Zorringer dismisses John by announcing that the duel will take place on the summit at sunrise the next day; his guest room will be John’s lodgings for the night.
Morning. Mountaintop. False dawn. Since Zorringer goes vestless, John must as well; in order for his victory to be truly meaningful, for him to truly best Zorringer in a duel of equals, he must be Zorringer’s equal. Like in every (post-)Western, masculinity stands proud, though slightly tired, at the center of this film. In contrast to all the previous meditations on the purpose of life and the meaning of that purpose, in this moment all reasoning and rationalization has been shed, and the absurdity of life is laid bare. As Camus and the existentialists realized, the question is not, “What is the purpose of life?” but, “What can I do that gives life purpose?” Why try to topple the institution of dueling that is Zorringer? For the same reason George Mallory climbed Mt. Everest: Because it is there. This holds true for all of us; after all, John is just another name for Everyman.
Shots ring out as the screen cuts to black. Fade in to Zorringer’s caged bird in the foreground, while the blurry figure in the background descending from the summit gradually clarifies into John.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.