Dustin Poirier, star of the documentary Fightville, began fighting at age five. Didn’t know why, for some reason he needed to hit people. Hard. His Louisiana daddy and granddaddy were the same way. At age 10, the heavyweight champion of his block knocked out a 15-year-old’s teeth, shattering his jaw. Dustin and his mama ended up in court.
Jail seemed inevitable. Then late in his teenage years, the belligerent, 200-pound alcoholic discovered mixed martial arts (MMA) on television. At age 20, when Fightville catches up to him, he’s training daily at Gladiator’s Gym, next to a suburban Piggly Wiggly grocery in Lafayette, La. Dustin is now a diamond-hard 150 pounds. Except after a winning fight and another $800 payday, when the featherweight splurges, jumping up a weight category by devouring an entire box of Walmart Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwiches.
Why not celebrate? Dustin has attracted the attention of MMA promoter Gil (The Thrill) Guillery. The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) could be next – TV appearances, his home paid off, a gaudy championship belt, maybe even a nickname for the world to remember.
“Fighting has opened the path to redemption for me,” Poirier tells Fightville directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker.
If only there was more of Dustin and his colleagues’ back story in Fightville, the fight film might have been a real knockout. Unfortunately, the movie stubbornly sticks to the combatants’ professional lives. What they hope to accomplish in the cage. (MMA bouts are waged in open-top shark tanks.)
We see lots of ring action, up-close. Watch faces swell and eyes close after battles. But we too seldom follow combatants home and discover what they’re really like. Instead, we get informal press conferences and are forced to endure way too much talk about the essence of competition.
“Fighting is truth,” trainer Tim Credeur gravely intones.
“We’re not selling fights, we’re selling entertainment,” Guillery lets on.
“Every talent must unfold itself in fighting,” Friedrich Nietzsche weighs in with a quotation from the great beyond.
Another Lafayette fighter, Albert Stainback, got into mixed martial arts to avenge his mother, a life-long punching bag for an abusive husband. Albert is on the same career path as his friend, Dustin, but then disappears in the middle of the film.
An alcoholic binge, apparently. Some trouble with a girl. He doesn’t show up at the gym. In a few months he’s out of shape and, before long, out of the game.
We want to know what happened. Want to see him with Dustin, closing a bar. Or hear from the girlfriend maybe. Was life with Albert another kind of caged fight?
The mistake filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein ( Gunner Palace) make here is assuming that fighters reveal their true characters in discussing their craft, when in fact just the opposite occurs: In talking about fighting, Dustin and Albert become actors, repeating clichés they’ve heard other fighters deliver over the years.
The characters in Fightville should have been silently observed going about their lives, not interviewed one on one, expressing their faith in the obviously dangerous religion of fighting.
As Nietzsche once said in a quote that isn’t included in Fightville: “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”
- Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker
- Featuring Dustin Poirier, Albert Stainback, Tim Credeur and Gil (The Thrill) Guillery
- Classification: 14A
Special to The Globe and Mail