Murderball is the title of a scrappy new documentary. It is also the original name of a sport: wheelchair rugby. "I guess they changed the name because it wasn’t marketable," muses a player. Is the movie marketable? Do you want to see quadriplegics bashing armored wheelchairs into each other? Yes, you do. Because Murderball isn’t about the sport, but about the men who play it.
The best wheelchair rugby player in the world used to be Joe Soares. He looks like Robert Duvall when he screams, which is most of the time. Then he got old and was cut from the American team. He became captain of the Candian team for revenge. Murderball begins as Canada, under Soares, defeats the top-ranked Americans. "How does it feel to betray your country?" someone asks him.
An entire wall of Soares’s house is covered by custom shelving filled with his trophies. He constantly browbeats his brainy, unathletic son Robert. Robert admits, "I hate dusting my dad’s trophies." He has to climb a ladder to do it.
The poster child of the American team is Mark Zupan. He is 200 pounds of tattoo-covered testosterone. "Don’t want to hit a guy in a wheelchair?" he says. "Go ahead, take a swing. I’ll hit you back." His curvy, able-bodied girlfriend used to work in a morgue. What does she miss most about her job? In a perfect deadpan, she says, "The people."
As a teenager, Zupan got drunk and passed out in the bed of his best friend’s truck. Mark Igoe, also drunk, didn’t know his buddy was back there. Igoe plowed the truck into an embankment, and Zupan flew into the canal, hanging on to a branch for 14 hours with a broken neck. Zupan and Igoe aren’t the kind of guys who talk about their feelings over a beer. They don’t speak for ten years.
All the players open their lives to the camera, and knock down myths like dominoes. "Quadriplegic" doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t move your arms and legs. Bob Lujano, for example, who has no legs at all and arms that end just past the elbow, drives a car and plays poker with the dexterity of a surgeon. How does a man with no hands catch a rugby ball? With glue. No, really – with glue. These men even share details of their sex lives, which have as much variation as anyone not in a wheelchair.
Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, the directors, always seem to be at the right place and time. When Joe Soares has a heart attack, the camera is in the operating room. Afterwards, he is a different person – a better one. Now watch the faces of Zupan and Igoe as they reunite. People change right before our eyes in Murderball . They adapt. Zupan sums it up when he says, "I’ve done more in a wheelchair than I ever did able-bodied."
Murderball is playing in a limited run at Showplace East. Also of note this week: the Manhattan Short Festival plays Saturday at the Buskirk Chumley Theater. Bloomington is among the cities that will vote for the winner, who will then be given everything necessary to make a feature film. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.