Film Review: Jeff Unay’s ‘The Cage Fighter’ Pulls No Punches

The subject of Jeff Unay’s documentary “The Cage Fighter” is a man named Joe Carman. He is a blue-collar worker who earns a living as a plumber and boilermaker, residing in the Seattle area where he and his wife raise their four daughters in the suburbs. In many ways, he is literally an “average Joe”. But through Unay’s filmmaking lens, he becomes a troubled star in the dramatic true story of his life.

As the film’s title suggests, there’s more to Joe Carman than his day job. Indeed, his passion lies in the fighting cage, where he pursues his long-time dream of being a mixed martial arts fighter. As a 40-year old man, however, with major responsibilities in his family life, his sporting efforts take a serious toll on his body and his relationships. His ailing wife and his adoring children need him and implore him to stop fighting. But despite the dangers of his dream, he struggles to resist what may be his final shot at glory.

With the look and feel of a gritty sports drama, Unay conveys myriad personal battles in Carman’s life. In fact, the scope of his various pressures sometimes exceeds Unay’s grasp. Indeed, from the fighting ring to his workplace, to his home, the weight of his daily struggle is deeply felt. Taking a few pages from the tearjerker playbook, the film tugs at the heartstrings with heated spousal arguments in kitchens, nostalgic home videos and even some daddy issues for good measure

There is definitely a certain familiarity with Carman’s story, but Unay distinguishes this documentary through several astute filmmaking choices. While other directors would obsess over Carman’s addictive psychology, Unay crafts an even more affecting narrative by highlighting several other important characters. Without ever directly engaging them, Unay skillfully captures several intimate moments, as Carman’s frustrated family, overbearing father and tough trainer attempt to exert their influence. As such, that tenuous balance between his opposing identities (family man and rogue fighter) is palpable, particularly in a brilliant scene that overlays one of his domestic arguments with the visuals of one of his MMA fights.

Ultimately, “The Cage Fighter” boils down to an essential question. What is most important in a man’s life? The visible danger and physical toll of Carman’s fighting may suggest an easy answer. But due to Unay’s soulful approach, there’s a fraught complexity behind Carman’s decision. Carman may initially seem like an “average Joe,” but both he and this thoughtful film contain multitudes.

“The Cage Fighter” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)