Murderball is a gem of a little film, one that's at very least worth renting in its inevitable DVD release. It's also one of the most over-hyped indies of the season. It won a couple of awards at Sundance -- the Audience Choice prize and another for editing -- and critics are wetting themselves in praise of the film, which depicts the world of quadriplegic rugby, or murderball, as seen through the eyes of filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro. Even curmudgeonly Roger Ebert has predicted that Murderball -- which is based on a Maxim article, which, in turn, was based on a New Times story ("Murderball," Susy Buchanan, February 28, 2002) -- will take home the Oscar for Best Documentary next year. But today, thanks in part to reality TV, we've all seen enough documentaries about the quirky lives or interests of differently abled people to recognize the ways in which Murderball is manipulative and predictable.
Still, Rubin and Shapiro have adequately captured a slice of life few of us would have stumbled upon outside of a movie house. Murderball's best success is in busting the stereotype of quadriplegics as pathetic, sweet-natured victims of circumstance. While there's something unsettling about watching these men expressing their anger at their plight by, as one player describes it, "basically killing the man with the ball," there's also a great release in seeing disabled guys depicted as warrior jocks, rampaging an indoor rugby court in their custom-made, frankly scary-looking murderball chairs.
The movie's most compelling story concerns Joe Soares, Team USA's most decorated player who was cut from the team in 2000 and, some say out of revenge, became coach of Team Canada. We're there as Soares faces his former teammates for the first time; there to see him gloat over Canada's victory at a major competition; there to hear one U.S. player ask him, "How's it feel to betray your country?" We're even present for his heart attack and to watch him recover, coming out on the other end as a humbler but still belligerent asshole jock.
The filmmakers have little trouble establishing Soares as the film's villain; they simply train a camera on his relationship with his young, unathletic son Robert. In one scene, Soares tells his team, "You're my boys!"; in the next, Robert is shown polishing his father's wall of trophies, a chore he admits he hates. Later, Soares boasts about his abusive behavior toward his son, who plays in the school band and worries that his father won't return from a rugby match in time to see him perform in a kiddy concert.
The movie's main conflict is the competition between Team USA and Team Canada, personified by the rivalry between Soares and Mark Zupan, the team's star player and this film's hero. But Murderball's other stories, which are meant to inform the film's bigger picture, are much more compelling: Early on, we meet Keith Cavill, a new quad who's recently been injured in a motocross accident. Cavill's story dovetails with Zupan's and the rest of Team USA's when Zupan visits the rehab center where Cavill has been living and lets him try out his rugby chair. It's the first time we see Cavill evince anything other than hopelessness, and his optimistic question about membership on Team USA ("Would we get kicked off the team once we walk again?") is tragic. And then there's Chris Igoe, Zupan's best friend, who caused the drunken accident that broke Zupan's neck. The two have since been estranged but, in part because the filmmakers orchestrated it, they are reunited.
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It's that very reality-TV-flavored manipulation that makes Murderball a nice little film, but keeps it from being a great one -- or at least an especially enlightening one. Rubin and Shapiro don't stop at depicting a violent, oddball competitive sport and the people who play it; instead, they manipulate their subjects with forced reunions and staged reconciliations. Game called on account of exploitation.