Murderball (USA, 2005, Henry-Alex Rubin & Dana Adam Shapiro) AKA Gimme Some Lovin'
How cool is it that we live in a world where a sport named murderball has a place in the Olympics? True, it’s the paralympics, but still and all, count me in as one who digs the whole idea. Yet, tempering my enthusiasm for the prospects of watching a film so delightfully named was the realization that it promised to be yet another inspirational sports film about unlikely heroes overcoming monumental odds. And yet, since this is a documentary, hope sprang eternal that the filmmakers wouldn’t doctor the material to force the uplift down own eager little throats. Thankfully, I was gratified to see the results, in which we get a mostly unadorned look at some rather fascinating characters, a team full of athletes who may be disabled, but who find in their sport a means of championing and expressing their value.
Murderball’s hook is the seething rivalry between the Canadian and American quad rugby teams, a rivalry fuelled by a perceived traitorous defection of one-time American star Joe Soares, who left the team to coach the Canadian squad. Joe left after suffering every athlete’s indignity; an ageing, slowing star, he was cut from the team. So, Joe took his bag of tricks, which included many plays in the American team’s handbook, up to Canada, where he shaped the quad rugby team into a world force, one good enough to challenge an American team that had not lost a major competition in eleven years. Joe’s main nemesis in the film, and in life, it appears, is the fiery new star of the American team, the heavily tattooed Texan, Mark Zupan. Joe and Mark are pair of very angry men who turn their anger against the world onto each other and use it to fuel their ambitions. While both excel on the court, they are a bit out of their element in non-murderball related activities. Joe struggles in his personal life, as he tries to run his family as if it were his murderball team, thereby distancing him from his bright and loving son. Zupan, on the other hand, tries to maintain an uneasy friendship with his best buddy from high school who was driving the truck during the accident that caused Mark’s paralysis. For both, murderball appears to be an outlet for their displeasures in life, as well as a sort of redemption for a life neither was quite able to lead.
The film does a good job of presenting these athletes as typical guys, with the same interests and appetites as young men everywhere. In fact, some of the most amusing and simultaneously uncomfortable moments in the film revolve around discussions of these gentlemen’s sex lives. For many, masturbation was a quickly learned skill, as was the willingness to use their disability as a kind of chum to women’s nurturing instinct. It is an irony of the film that these vigorously athletic men decide to play the pathetic card in order to pick up women. This is also the portion of the film that begins to edge uncomfortably into exploitation and voyeurism. During the frank discussions and titillating footage outlining the best techniques for sexual engagement, are we being asked to laugh with them or at them?
Interestingly, one of the most human figures in the film isn’t one of the athletes, but a young motocross accident victim, Andy Cavill, who is only a few months removed from the accident and still carrying the mighty emotional weight that accompanies the dawning realization of the consequences of this life-altering event. And yet, when, late in the film, he is dropped into the bucket of Zupan’s murderball chair, Andy becomes a new man, reinvigorated by the few moments he spends careening down the halls of the hospital in his Mad Max-mobile, begging hospital staff for the opportunity to bash Zupan with his own chair. It’s almost as if Cavill’s tap-tap-tapping of his chair against Zupan’s is some sort of Morse code, dictating his recovery. In this moment the sport is both a means of self-expression and a statement of self-worth. It is also a giant finger in the eye of the world or the fates or whatever forces allow such horrible things to happen.
Winner of the American Documentary Audience Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Murderball is most entertaining when it is being most honest and unflinching in its portrait of the film’s central figures. The temptation might be, in this ESPN meets Sports Illustrated glossed-over world, to candy-coat these characters, and make them all cuddly victims of fate whom we would be churls not to clasp to our loveable middle class chests. But the fact is that most of these guys have not been turned into contemplative and sensitive humans by their accidents; rather, they seem to be perhaps even BIGGER assholes than your standard able-bodied athletes. Now, I say “seem” because the reality is that most people who participate at the highest levels of athletic endeavour must be really, really driven and self-involved at some fundamental level, which helps to explain why most top-level athletes probably have high levels of assholed-ness within them, but that the top-level so-called able-bodied athletes get all sorts of media training where they are taught to put a sunny face on that darkened interior, whereas the hardly affluent athletes in Murderball are left to their own devices, and as a result, they let it all hang out. And the movie is much the stronger for it; it is a breath of proverbial fresh air to observe athletes behaving like human beings instead of pre-programmed media darlings.
Murderball is stylishly directed, with some fancy camera footwork that really plays up the team’s rivalry well. However, the film only gets even remotely political in its final moments, as we see Zupan discussing the glories of murderball with quadriplegic Iraqi war vets who, who look too young to shave, yet are old enough to have sacrificed so much. Perhaps the occasional shots of a smug George Bush delivering banal accolades regarding the Olympic team’s accomplishments can be seen as ironic commentary by the filmmakers, but it is hard to tell given how off-handed these moments are.